As the week went on my confidence about the party fluctuates. One one hand I reminded myself I has been able to hold my own against Adrian and that had sometimes felt like running across hot dirt desperate for the cool shade spots to land in. It had made my heart race. It was thrilling in the way it was scary. Then there were the other students, refreshing, easy conversation I wanted to lap up and lastly the toughest social situation with Avery – who wanted to bully and verbally put me back in the small space I had occupied my entire life.
I hadn't let her.
Then I had Spiridon who tested me everyday, who pushed me to my limit where I had to tame my temper and use my wit to bite back. No retort he won. If I were to lash out he won. So far we had been tied in this game of witty insults. There had been no more mention of Tasha and I hoped he kept it that way.
All it took to send my confidence falling like a car out of the back of a huge aeroplane was for Natalie to say something like;
'I can't wait to see what Jessica wears.',
'Aaron better not turn up with something skanky on his arm, he'll only embarrass himself',
'Mason says he has the party game… I really hope there's not fire involved this time'.
And then lastly
'Our costumes are amazing. Like cannot-take-my-eyes-off-you-incredible'.
I'd googled women's Halloween costumes. I puked the first time I searched as my mind couldn't break away from the idea of standing in front of sixty teenagers in a scrap of shiny white material, that clung to your body like I shouldn't of bothered putting anything on anyway. I couldn't believe it to be a real thing but under the image was a thread of feedback with pictures women had taken in these outfits. They'd been smiling, holding drinks, one leg lifted up, knee bent so the dress lifted even higher barely covering their butt cheeks.
All it takes is the image of that Halloween costume to make me dizzy.
I tried to calm myself by remembering the poster we'd seen leaving Arizona. The smiling women in nothing but underwear. The smile like she knew a secret that you could never know. The memory could calm me but it also made me feel hopeless and frustrated.
I had to believe Natalie would never expect me to wear something like that then that would be the biggest fear conquered. The next would be what if I couldn't make myself fit into her party? Natalie had made some of her friends sound terrible. They'd say one thing but do another. What if I embarrassed her and Lissa? What if it was so terrible sixty pairs of eyes looked at me in disgust? What then? Go to my room and hope I would never have to come out again I suppose.
The thing that helped distract from burning up in these fears is trying to weigh one against the other. Would I rather wear the 'nurses' outfit (a human healer. I googled further and real nurses did not dress like that which makes it all even more ridiculous) and fit right in. Betraying everything I was taught to believe. Betraying my mother. Or would I rather stand out and be humiliated…
I know which one I should choose and the fact I couldn't easily filled me with shame. My mother wouldn't recognise me.
You're not going to see here again so what does that matter?
"And then I fell down the stairs and realised the bike was on fire." I blink and find Spiridon staring at me with his head cocked to one side. "Back with us?"
"I agree with her. What? Who's bike was on fire?" Ben says.
They were helping bring in boxes of decorations to the kitchen. Punch bowls, edible glitter for the drinks, skeleton piñatas (I had to google this too), various light up pumpkins and bats, silver and black glittering baubles to hang from the ceiling, boxes of string lights, fake blood to spatter around, matt/shiny/glittered black solo cups, glow in the dark stickers, bright green and pink popcorn and party cannons.
Between being excited and then dizzy at the thought of this party, I'd been trying not to think about how long it was going to take me to clean all this up. And this was only a small portion of the decorations as Natalie had 'professionals' coming in tomorrow to work on the living room and garden.
Ben is holding a particularly big box in the kitchen entry and Spiridon is holding a single package of solo cups. He places an elbow on the box and Ben grunts.
"Well it was hardly not going to be on fire when I parked it on hot coals by accident. And the moral of this story is, do not drink black absinthe and cycle."
"What is the point of this story?" Ben demands, jerking the box so Spiridon loses his leaning post.
"You asked me the best Halloween I ever had." Ben drops the box down by my feet muttering. "Anyway, almost time to go get the lady of the house. I'll let Victor know we're leaving."
I start unpacking the box Ben had put down,"Could you-"
"Get Burgers and shakes on the drive home? Great idea."
I laugh. "Actually I was going to ask could you tell me… how do you think Dimitri is doing?"
Ben pauses in examining a pumpkin that glows from bright orange to red. "He's made good progress. Keith's been happy with it."
"He hasn't come downstairs." I'd overheard Spiridon on the phone listing the Gaurdian's that would be on patrol for the party and he'd said 'Belikov'. Dimitri hadn't even made it out of his bedroom...as far as I know. "Victor said if he wasn't able to chaperon he'd have to go to the school."
I hope I sounded casual but even if I didn't it's Ben. If I could trust anyone with sounding like I cared more than I should it was him. I look up from unpacking sparkly red banners to find Ben's moved closer to where I am on the floor. He leans against the island and looks down at me with an earnest look. "He's staying here. I'll make sure of it."
I look up into his face, so much kinder than any other Guardian I'd ever met. There isn't a hint of cold ruthless steel engraved into his face. I wonder how he grew up. "Did Victor try to help us get back? Was it all Tasha?'
Ben opens his mouth but then quickly closes it again when feet thunder down the stairs. Ben moves quickly. Before I can blink he's at the end of the island, pickings up a decoration to inspect just as Spiridon rounds the corner.
"Good to go. Are we picking up dinner considering it looks like Target exploded in here?'
"Double cheese and bacon burger, pickles, ketchup, large fries, large chocolate shake and some chicken nuggets."
Ben grins. "I'll be having the same but with extra fries."
"You paying this time?" Spiridon asks me casually. "Think your turns overdue."
I lift my chin. "I can. My cards upstairs." Natalie had instructed me on the importance of the plastic rectangle, about keeping it safe and how I could use it. He grins and raises his eyebrows. "Although Ben's the only one I trust with it."
Don't let him win. Don't let him win.
"Its on me." Ben says quickly. "Is Tasha eating with us tonight?"
Spiridon looks like he's chewing on whatever he was going to say to me but he answers Ben. "No, she's staying at the academy but she is coming on Saturday to help chaperon." He drops me a wink and I scowl. Ben looks between us. "C'mon Ben. You know Natalie doesn't like to wait."
"Is Victor coming?"
"Why would he? There's a capable Guard in the house." Spiridon says over his shoulder as he leaves the kitchen.
Ben and I exchange a look.
"I'll be a quick as I can." he says.
"See you soon."
I unpack more boxes and try to organise as much as possible to made some room in the kitchen. I make coffee for Victor and start to fix something for Dimitri. He won't want fast food. I'd spent the last couple of days trying to come up with calories packed meals that would be easy enough for him to manage.
I bring Victor his coffee and ask if he would like pasta but he shakes his head without looking up from the paper in his hands. "I'm disappointing my doctor tonight. Cholesterol be damned."
I don't know what that means. "Okay."
As I'm pulling his office door closed he says, "Please tell Dimitri to join us for dinner won't you?"
There has been a loaded in tension in the house since their arrival back from court. Victor didn't mention Dimitri, didn't ask how he was and as far as I knew hadn't spoken to him since arriving home. "Yes. I will."
I stride down the hall and try to push down the rising sense of panic. There is no reason to panic. No, don't be stupid, don't ignore your instincts – it is important Dimitri pleases Victor tonight. I just can't put my finger on why or what the consequences will be.
I knock lightly on his door before slipping inside.
"I'm making pasta and garlic -"
Dimitri's not in bed where I expect him to be or even on the window seat with a book. He looks over his shoulder to me from his dresser where he's shirtless. I would blabber an apology and back out of there as fast as possible if it weren't for all the bruises mapping his body. It has been weeks and still he's wearing a pattern of injuries. The last time I'd seen his body he was painted in purples so dark they were almost black. Now the purples have turned to greens and yellows. I know that's a good sign but it doesn't make me fill me with comfort.
"If I cant dress myself we have little hope for anything else." he sighs.
I close the door behind me. "Victor wants you downstairs tonight for dinner."
"Spiridon warned me."
He closes his drawer and walks toward me.
He's bruised everywhere.
Somewhere in my brain I'm grateful that I'm too stunned to be embarrassed.
"That his patience is running out."
"I don't understand. Your hurt, you need rest and your his best Guardian. Why is it so urgent today?"
He sits down on the end of his bed, wincing and trying to hide it. "Its always been urgent. With Victors importance he needs three Guardians and he's been without that for weeks.
"He wouldn't...replace you would he? I get that someone else might have to if he has to go back to Court but it could only be until you get right better right? Like if-"
"Rose." His voice is sharp. "It doesn't work like that."
My first instinct at his tone is cower back and excuse myself from the room but I dig out my nerve and cross my arms. "So tell me how it does work."
He shakes his head and tries to put on his shirt clearly forgetting that's what he was just having trouble with. I flinch as he sucks air in through his teeth and curses in Russian.
"Let me help."
He doesn't protest but I guess he doesn't really have a choice. I help manoeuvrer his arms through the shirt and slide it over his head, trying to be as gentle as possible. He smells faintly of citrus and his hair is still damp. He wont be able to tie his hair back... maybe I should offer.
The memory of being in the garden with him, my fingers running all over his back and kneading out the knots. Touching him then had my heart in my mouth and the constant reminder on loop in my mind that I was helping him was the only thing keeping me focused. I tell myself that now, its all about helping him.
He sighs. "Thank you."
"Paying you back I suppose." He looks at me questioningly. I gesture to my arm. "You helped me with this." and many other things.
"You don't owe anyone anything, especially me."
"That's not true."
"Yes it is." he says flatly. "You were given nothing. You grew up with nothing but abuse. You don't owe anyone anything."
After a few seconds of silence I say. "I owe my Mom."
I feel it all rising inside of me, everything I've suppressed and it all comes tumbling out. "Do you know how she is? Are they being better to her and the others? Has Master Ozera… is is he still away from the house?" My cheeks had heated with every word but I couldn't help it. I'd tried not to think of her. She told me to survive and the only proof I had that she's in this world was taken from me by a Moroi and they had already taken so much of us.
"I don't know but I can find out."
I nod and look away so he doesn't see how disappointed I am, see it crush me. "Thanks." I should leave now but instead I sit down on the window seat. "So how do we make sure you stay here?"
"I top up on pain meds and start doing my job."
"Does your job involve falling off any more mountains?"
"I didn't fall off a mountain."
"Or taking more of those drinks?"
"Lying about your injuries?"
I turn back from the window. "Well?"
His dark eyes are trained on me. "No."
"If your angry with me you may as well say it all now."
"I was angry with you when I thought you were going to die. I'm not now." It's a lie. The idea of him leaving and not coming back makes fire bubble in my stomach. If he left here I cant picture or imagine where he would end up. All I can see is Natasha Ozera being with him, she could go with him anywhere and I would be stuck here. Fighting with Spiridon for the rest of my life.
He holds up his hand and for a moment I'm confused and a bit scared he wants me to take it. "I have another promise to keep. I'm not going anywhere."
It clicks and I step closer to examine his palm. The scar of that other promise. "You wouldn't want to break that promise. She's terrifying when she's mad."
"I'll take your word for it."
I smile and the barest hint of one tugs at his lips too.
"What's your mom like?" I blurt.
His expression smooths over. "She… she is unwell. My family look after her."
"Oh. I'm sorry."
My curiosity is burning to ask more questions about his family. He'd told me a bit about his father before and the little he'd said conveyed so much loathing but I feel like I've ruined the easy mood, and now it was tense and awkward. I scrabble around my brain for another topic but he gets there first.
"You said something about pasta?"
"Yes! Oh I better get on that now. Ben is bringing burgers back soon and we're meant to all eat together."
He stands and sways forward slightly. Instinctively I reach out and my hand splays against his chest, over his heart. He towers over me.
He nods. "I got it." His hand covers mine but then he's pulling it away. He brushes past me to grab a zip up hoodie. "Lets start dinner."
When the door beeps open and Ben comes in carrying bags of deliciously greasy fast food, Dimitri and I are finishing plating the pasta into a large bowl. I can hear Natalie coming up the path, her excitable chatter carrying into the house and I cant help but grin. I leave Dimitri and rush into the hall just as she steps over the threshold.
She doesn't even pause in what she's telling Spiridon, who looks exasperated, as she throws herself at me. She smells sweet, almost like candy, and I don't hesitate in hugging her back. So much has happened since I last saw her that getting embarrassed seems stupid.
She pulls back with an infectious smile on her face. "I cannot wait for this party. You are going to love it, everyone's so excited."
"I've missed you."
She winks and then runs to meet Victor who's appears on the stairs. At the sight of him I remember Dimitri and rush back into the kitchen to help finish up. If he's nervous he doesn't show it. He's battered and bruised on the outside but under all that he's still a warrior. I reach for the heavy bowl but Dimitri's hands beat me to it, leaving me to lift the garlic bread. I follow him to the dining table where everyone else is waiting, Spiridon passing out the food from the bags and also eyeing up the pasta. Any anxiety I have is chased away by the smell of dinner.
Natalie tells us all about school and her classes whilst Victor watches her fondly. He doesn't show any 'impatience' towards Dimitri and Dimitri doesn't show any signs of being uncomfortable. He doesn't speak but he never really spoke much anyway. There aren't any comments made about Dimitri's absence until after the dishwashers loaded up and Natalie's pulling me upstairs.
She spins on her heel. "Oh, I forgot. I'm really glad your okay Dimitri. It's good to see you."
Dimitri smiles from the sofa but it doesn't reach his eyes. "Thank you, Natalie."
Victor's cup clatters loudly onto his saucer. "Shall we start?"
They were all gathered in the living room and to discuss stuff that was obviously not for us to hear. If Victor had any threats to give Dimitri about his patience then I would bet they were coming now.
Maybe if I kept my door open I could hear…
"Come on!" Nat says pulling me up behind her.
She bounces into my room and closes the door behind me. Damn it.
"I'm so exited but there's so much to do." She drops down onto my bed. "Me and Lissa thought it would be good to help prepare you so I've got my year book."
I've been hovering by the door hoping to hear something but I couldn't hear a thing. Natalie rummages in her school bag and pulls out the book she's talking about and I join her. The book has pictures of students and of the school and I soon forget about the conversation downstairs. I devour it. She goes through every student and tells me something about them, some more than others, and I cant help but think how you could know so many people and remember so much about them. She points out her and Lissa's friend group, her boyfriend, Lissa's ex-boyfriend and those people she disliked.
"Why are you inviting Mia if you don't like her?"
"Because it would be petty not to invite her." Natalie sniffs. "Plus she gets to see how fantastic it is and how brilliant I am for putting it all together."
She turns a page and I stop breathing as Christian Ozera's photo looks back at me. She repeats the story about him setting fire to a boy and that his parents are 'weird' but I don't say a word. After a while Natalie runs out of things to tell me and I pull the book into my lap to go over it again. She flicks on the TV and pulls a share bag of chips out of her bag to put between us.
"Nat, if we have a lot to do shouldn't we be doing it?"
She looks confused for a moment and then comprehension dawns on her face. "Ohhh no, we're leaving it all to the decorators… although I will be dictating."
"If someone else is decorating then what are we doing?"
"We only have to worry about getting ready! Ohhh I forgot." Her green eyes glitter with excitement and I brace myself. "So you know we're wearing costumes right?" My stomach drops. "So they're arriving tomorrow and then on Saturday a team is coming to do our hair and make-up. Speaking of which I have been biting my tongue about this but what did you do to your hair?"
I flush. "Oh um...cut it."
"Yes I gathered that." She says sarcastically.
I cross my arms. "I got sick of looking like I was 12. Spiridon was making fun of me and then Dimitri said I was naive."
"Assholes." My eyes nearly pop out of my head. "What? They made you feel bad about yourself. A-holes do that. I should know, I'm one when Mia is around."
She's being so glib and all I can do is blink. "Well…. I don't think they were wrong but -"
"But they should of kept their opinion to themselves. I'm also guessing Spiridon had a field day when he seen this" she swirls her finger at me.
"It's a good thing you have me and that it doesn't look so bad when you have it tied back."
"Dimitri was just...trying to protect me I suppose. I met a boy at the school and I think-"
Natalie gasps. "You met a boy?"
"Yeah, um, he was there visiting too with his father."
"Who? What's his name?"
I hesitate. I had thought of Adrian and sometimes I fell asleep hoping maybe he'd appear but he hadn't. It been easy to think I'd imagined our time together. "Adrian Ivashkov." A slow smile starts to creep across her face. "You're looking at me kinda creepy."
"I know Adrian. A lot of people know Adrian. Dimitri was right trying to keep you clear of him."
I lift my chin. "Nothing happened. We had fun, we went to a party."
"You went to a party?! Why the hell haven't you told us this?"
A few near death experiences had sort of eclipsed it but I couldn't tell her that so I tell her about everything that had happened at the school. She's so interested I can't help but feel smug. Finally I had something interesting to say.
"I don't know why we were so worried." She says after I'm done. "You're gonna be just fine."
I grin back at her but the woman in the white plastic 'dress' comes to mind again. "What are we wearing?"
"It's a surprise."
"Natalie please, I can't wear something...short."
"You wont be." The smirk on her face is not helping me calm down. She seems to realise this and adds. "Don't worry. I would never put you in anything terrible...I remember how you freaked about underwear shopping."
I suddenly become a wear at the nipping at my ribs. It's getting harder to ignore these days. Now that I'm putting on weight it's hard to keep everything pushed down and flat. My breasts were also so sore when I finally took the bandages off at the end of the night. I had to spend some time rubbing them gently to ease the pain.
"About that, um, do you think you'd be comfortable with trying some? Now that you've been here a while and um, safe?"
I don't like this conversation. "I don't know."
She shrugs. "Okay. Well I'm gonna go upstairs and call Ralf. He better have remembered to pick up his costume."
She kisses my cheek and slides off the bed.
"It was nice what you said earlier, to Dimitri."
She hums as she turns the door handle. "Yeah, well I'm glad he is okay. It would be a nightmare for daddy to find a replacement. All the best are taken."
She closes the door behind her and I suppress the urge to throw the yearbook at it. I had no right to feel this mad, not when I thought about it, Dhampirs were there to protect Moroi, first and final. Dimitri is just a Guardian to them.
I go to the bathroom and lock the door so I can remove the damn bandages. A pool of guild spread in my stomach as I remember my mother and how she'd looked at me when I'd called Dimitri by his name and not by station, Guardian Belikov but she couldn't be mad that I was afraid of him leaving could she? I mean, he'd promised her he'd protect me.
No, she'd be angry about something I was too stupid to realise myself.
I let out a sigh of relief as the bandages unravel and then I catch sight of myself in the mirror.
I couldn't help it as my eyes travelled over myself. My bones didn't jut out like they were going to break skin. The sight my body isn't painful to me any more and it's now I finally see it. I finally understand why my mother wanted me to hide and make myself as small as possible. I'd known why but I hadn't fully understood it.
The reason is in the dip of my waist, the curve of my breasts, the softness of my navel, my collar bones now they no longer resemble a coat hanger under my skin. A woman's body is alluring, beautiful when it's looked after.
The punishment this would earn me if she were now... but she isn't and everything is different. The risk is less here. There had been that incident with Voda's Guardian but he had suffered the consequences of that, not me.
I think about Natalie's offer about the underwear, the woman from the poster, the scenes from the TV show and movies I'd been watching. Sex seemed more like a secret thing people did with each other and not something dangerous. I understood it could be, a weapon to some but not everyone. I'd always had this fear that when it came to men it was at the forefront of their mind, something they could decide they wanted at anytime and you would have to give it.
The worst man I knew right now was Spiridon and I couldn't imagine him ever…
I shake off the revulsion that skitters over my shoulders.
I pull on PJ's and brush my teeth, very aware of naked my throat is without her necklace.
The next morning when my alarm goes off I'm so angry that my dreams been interrupted I knock it off and the next thing I know is Natalie is shaking me awake.
I bolt upright.
"Don't freak – no one else is up yet." she says. She's still in her PJ's and her hair is sticking up. She looks so much younger.
"Then why are you?" I rub my face trying to scrub away the sleep.
"The decorators are coming at half eight." She yawns. "It's seven now."
I groan. I'd missed my work out. I hadn't missed one since I started.
"I thought we could make pancakes!"
That actually means I would be making pancakes and she would be sitting on the island 'supervising'. Twenty minutes later when we're both dressed that's exactly what's happening.
"Blueberry or chocolate chip?"
I shake my head and decide to make a stack of each. When the blueberry stack is keeping warm in the oven I hear movement overhead. I'm not surprised when Spiridon rounds the corner first.
"Yay, your just in time to help the decorators."
Spiridon's smile drops. "What? Why would they need help doing their jobs?"
"Because your so big and strong." Natalie says in dramatic breathy voice. "You can help carry things in."
"And you can get me the bacon from the fridge." I add.
"Oh I can, can I?"
Natalie waves a fork at him. "Don't make me order you."
He rolls his eyes but of course he does it. "I hate it when you two are together."
"I love you too." Natalie sings, popping open a tub of Nutella.
I catch a weird look on his face before he disappears behind the fridge door but when he emerges its gone. By the time the chocolate batch is in the oven the others have come down stairs and Victors coffee has been brought to him at the dining table. He looks tired but not as tired as Dimitri. Natalie joins her father as Ben sets the table.
"Do you need any help?" Dimitri asks.
"Nope." I flip on the blender, for the calorie dense protein smoothie for him. It was a murky green shade today but hopefully the spinach only changed the colour and not the taste.
Ben comes in with his eyes on the coffee machine. "Ah, ah. Can you take in the fruit?" He exchanges a look with Dimitri. "Please?" I add smiling.
"Since its you asking." Ben replies.
"Rose do not treat me like glass." Dimitri says quietly when we're alone.
I don't look up from plating the bacon. "I'm not. You can make Ben and yourself coffee."
I can feel his eyes but I pretend I can't. Spiridon pokes his head round the corner. "Is it nearly ready?"
He is so whiny.
"Yep, so you can carry the stacks to the table."
"And what are you going to do?" He asks as I breeze past him.
"Uh, I cooked. You carry."
I'm going to pay for that in some way but the sound of Dimitri chuckling makes it all worth it.
Breakfast is mostly spent going over the party. Victor asks Natalie questions that sounds like he's testing her – who was coming, how many total, she knew how important it is they all behave, the golden rules: no accidents, no scandals, no property damage – nothing that could be used to make it seem like the Dashkov's had allowed teenagers to run rampant and be disrespectful. There couldn't be anything bar good reports as those reports would be heard by their parents. Natalie nodded seriously and said she understood. This party is sounding more and more like a mission.
"And as for drinking." Victors eyes bore into his daughter. Natalie straightens her spine. "If that compromises any of the rules I will be very, very disappointed in you."
She nods seriously. "I know."
For Natalie's sake I was going to make sure those rules are followed too.
The calm atmosphere is shattered as a van pulls into the driveway and Natalie is running to the door.
"Rose, are you comfortable attending the party or do you want to stay at the Academy with me?" Victor asks.
I take in his words and really mull them over. I didn't think I'd be given a choice but to stay and as much as the idea of the party has sent me through loops of excitement and dread I realise now - I wouldn't miss it for the world.
I grin. "I'm happy staying here."
Victor smiles back as if pleased by the answer.
"Great." Spiridon groans, standing to follow Natalie. "Baby sitting duty."
"Uh, I did just fine last time!"
"Last time?" Victor asks with a raised brow.
"They need more help!" Natalie shouts from the doorway. I seize the opportunity to grab plates and run to the kitchen.
I've just closed the door to the dishwasher when the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I spin and find myself a hairs breath away from being pressed against Dimitri. I step back and hit the counter. I become aware of my heartbeat in my ears and for once it's not from fear.
He holds out more plates for me to load. "I had kept your social life to myself."
I make my eyes widen. "I just meant being at that school. That's all."
He looks down into my face. "You're getting good at lying."
"I knew I didn't have a tell." Heat starts to climb up my chest. His eyes were really the colour of chocolate and tree bark. "You better finish your smoothie." I say snatching the plates from his hands.
"And could you help me unpack the decorations in here?" I add quickly, afraid he'll get roped into lifting heavy stuff with decorators who were now dumping things in the hall or moving furniture like Ben.
He considers this and looks over his shoulder.
"Yes" he agrees quietly. "I suppose that's where I'll be most useful."
I bite my tongue when the urge to say something comforting wants to leap off it. He wouldn't appreciate it and I know because I wouldn't either. We work in silence lifting out more banners and covering the island with stuff that the decorators or Natalie would come and pluck up to take into the other room. It becomes apparent after a few hours that we're more in the way than helping so I go to my room with some snacks. I'm flipping through Natalie's year book when there's a knock on the door.
Dimitri steps into the room and I snap the book shut.
"Natalie mentioned you slept in this morning and Spiridon has told me how every morning you've been focused on getting fitter." Is he really here to make me feel guilty? "I was wondering if you wanted to come on a walk with me now?"
"Yeah, sure, um...I'll just change."
"I'll meet you downstairs in ten minutes."
Ten minutes later I'm taking the stairs two at a time. The living room looks like a construction site with Natalie in the middle gesturing and wavering her hands above the noise of drilling. Where have they moved all the furniture?
Dimitri is already outside on the green. He isn't wearing his normal running gear, with the form fitting and light top, but I guess we weren't running. God I hope we're not. I step out as he's throwing something back into his mouth and pockets a small yellow bottle.
He doesn't say anything but gestures toward the path. We set off.
We walk in silence for twenty minutes, it's not uncomfortable but it's not comfortable either. I feel happy that he's asked me along regardless.
After a few more minutes I can't stand it any more. "So, is Victor still feeling impatient?"
He gives me a side long look."Nothings changed in the last five hours."
"You're out of bed." I point out.
"Ah yes, I should add that to my resume." He says dryly.
"I think so." I sneak another look at him and found that small smile back.
"How have you found running this trail?"
"Running is a strong word. I jog and then I get to a run but I don't stay running for long. I can run half, maybe three quarters at a push. You aren't suggesting we start are you?"
"I am not suggesting that at all. Walking is fine for now."
"Good because I don't want to see those pancakes again."
"But we will get you running the full route before Christmas."
"How long until then?"
"Two months from now."
"And you think I could do it?"
"Of course. I'm setting myself the same task."
After a few seconds I smirk, "Bet I can do it before you."
He laughs and it sounds like a prize. He rarely laughs.
Does Natasha make him laugh?
"As a man recovering from cardiac arrest, scratch that, from a man who's heart stopped, I think you might have better odds." Before I can digest that comment and let it darken the mood he nudges me. I look up and his dark eyes have a spark in them. "But I've always loved a challenge."
"So have I." We grin at each other.
We fall into silence as we get to the steep bit of trail. I try not to think about how he'd just reminded me his heart had stopped a little over a month ago. The only sign he's finding it challenging is a slight sheen on his forehead. I think the hardest part about this for him is knowing he used to run this so easily. I couldn't imagine how frustrated I'd be if I had to relive my first time around.
A little bit later when the ground evens out I ask him what Christmas is like. He tells me about multi coloured lights, tree's we bring inside and decorate, exchanging gifts and carolling (why not just call it singing?). Then he tells me about Russian traditions like fortune telling and a fast leading up to Christmas Eve. I can't remember any of these things ever happening at the Ozera house. Maybe they did but I could never tell because I was always outside. It's weird my mother never told me about it.
The house comes back into view and I think about that first run and Natasha waiting in the kitchen. I debate telling Dimitri the truth but then again what would that achieve? My word and against his 'good friend'. She'd kept her favour, she hadn't spoken a word to me and she'd been in and out of the past week. Laughing and being 'delightful' to Victor and then disappearing into Dimitri's room.
"Thank you the company."
"Tomorrow morning? Just before sunset?"
"Sounds good." I smile but then he stops just short of the house. "You go on in. I'm going to take a minute."
"Are you okay?" Now I take a good look at him instead of stealing glances. He looks a bit pale and I got the feeling that if I shoved him there's a good chance he'd stumble. Pre-heart attack Dimitri never stumbled. "Do you need me to get someone? Ben?"
"No. Go in and don't say anything."
I'm about to argue but he gives me such a look words die on my tongue. As I approach the back door it's thrown open by Natalie holding a strip of material.
"I need to blindfold you. Your not to see anything until tomorrow."
"How am I going to make dinner later?" More specifically how was I going to make sure Dimitri got all his calories.
"We'll order in."
There's absolutely no arguing with her so I shrug and let her tie it around my head. She walks me through the kitchen and I threaten that if Spiridon takes this opportunity to scare me I'll put chilli's in all his food. The stairs are surprisingly easy as I can picture them in my mind and the turn on the landing into my room. The door closes and the blindfold is pulled away.
Lissa is sitting crossed legged on my bed. Her platinum blonde hair was tied up in a neat top bun making her look even more angelic than usual. A few tendrils were loose around around her face. I forget about Dimitri for the next few hours and after construction noise carries up the stairs we move up to Natalie's room and camp out on the floor.
Natalie is painting my nails a deep red and Lissa is inspecting the mess of my hair.
"It's not too bad." She says which means it's still bad. "Maybe long layers? You're lucky your hairs so thick."
"I don't want it cut short. That's all I care about."
She presses her fingers to the top of my waist. "I think about here would be good."
"The bottoms all dead Rose, it needs chopped off." Natalie says. "It'll make it so much healthier."
"No shorter than my waist." I say firmly.
Natalie shrugs. "There, first layer done. I'm gonna get some soda's. Any other requests?"
"Okay. We should also think about dinner. What haven't you tried yet Rose?
I check my mental food list. "Chinese."
"Oooooh yes. Bring up the menu on your phone Liss. I'll be right back."
Lissa passes me her phone and then goes back to brushing my hair. I will myself to keep my eyes open. "I don't know about any of this stuff."
"We can just order a bunch of dishes and you can try them all."
"I want to pay for it."
The brush pauses. "You don't have to do that."
"I want to. I want to buy us dinner."
"Okay." The brushing continues. "Where's your necklace? I've never seen you without it."
My eyes had dropped close but now they spring open. "I,uh, I lost it."
"Here? We could look for it, a combined effort can make all the difference."
"I lost it in Estonia."
"Oh. I'm sorry." she says quietly and I knows she really means it. I also know she knows how much it meant to me but I've no idea how but that's one of Lissa's talents.
My throat is tight. "Thanks."
The door is kicked open by Natalie's foot and she comes in carrying half the pantry. "The Guardians and daddy want food too."
"I'm paying for it." I tell her quickly as I take some things out of her arms as she sits back down.
"Are you sure? They and I eat like horses." She asks, tearing open a bag of cheeto's.
I laugh. "Yes, I know."
Natalie ends up ordering half the menu and having an argument with Spiridon on the phone (who is downstairs) about how many portions of egg rolls to get.
"He is so greedy." She says, after winning the argument for four boxes instead of five.
"What have you done to downstairs?" I ask examining my new nail colour.
She winks at me. "Magic." and then she disappears into her closet.
"How is Dimitri?" Lissa asks me. "I'm glad he's okay."
"Because its so hard to get a replacement right?" The bitterness in my voice surprises me.
Lissa looks confused and a touch hurt. "Well, no, I only meant I'm glad he's okay. I like him."
Shame immediately pinches at my face. "Oh. Sorry. It's just, that's what Natalie said and I um..."
"I know how much he means to you." She says quietly and I go still. "After where you came from... he's protective of you and I'm grateful about that. And I know you feel more comfortable when he's around. I want you to feel safe." I have no words. I can only look at her wondering how she thought this. "Have I said too much? I do that. I assume I think I know everything about peoples feelings and I can't even make up my mind about my own."
Natalie was cursing and throwing things around from inside the closet. I don't know what to say. Anything I said would be lying or allowing myself to be cracked open, and no matter how understanding Lissa is I couldn't do that. So I don't say anything, I just take her hand and give it a squeeze hoping that it's enough.
She smiles in relief, keeping her fangs concealed and squeezes back.
"Okay Rose." Natalie announces coming back and holding up a pair intimidating boots that looked way too long. "I need you to practice walking in these."
"Why?" I splutter.
"For your costume! I swear its easy, they're platform and look, block heel."
I look to Lissa for help.
"Arguing with her just means you're drawing it out. Get your party shoes on."
Natalie brandishes the shoes and I groan.
By the time the food arrives I've managed to be able to walk the length of Natalie's room and back. I even pretend that all the people in the photos on her wall are watching me because come tomorrow they would be and I was not falling on my face. I would be practising before bed too.
The food arrives and because we weren't allowed downstairs without Natalie promising bodily harm, Ben and Spiridon bring it up and we all end up dining in my room. Except for Victor who insisted on eating in his study. Dimitri sits on my window seat, eating his food like a chore and not saying much. After today's walk I hope he's feeling okay but it isn't the right time to ask so I sit down beside him and enjoy every single bite of my orange chicken. I snatch the last two egg rolls when Spiridon's not looking and by the time he realises the box is empty all the evidence is gone.
Looking around my room I think about the first day I met Lissa and Natalie, when they'd been downstairs laughing and joking with everyone in this room and their families, and how it had made my heart ache and spit fire. Then there had been the party Natalie had worn her beautiful gold dress to before going back to school and how she'd had a pitying conversation with me about how I couldn't go with them. I am so far away from the person I was then, terrified and twitchy, I could never have survived a party.
But now...now I know what I can survive and I'm excited for what's coming.