"What's the matter? Worried about what your slaves'll think if they see you talking to me?"
"They're my friends," she retorted.
"Oh. Right. Of course they are. I mean, from what I saw, Camille would probably do anything for you, right? Friends till the end." He crossed his arms over his chest, and in spite of her anger, she couldn't help but notice how the silvery gray of his shirt set off his black hair and blue eyes.
"At least she isn't like you. She doesn't pretend to be my friend one day and then ignore me for no reason."
An uncertain look flickered across his features. Tension and anger had built up between them in the last week, ever since I'd yelled at Christian after the royal reception. Believing what I'd told him, Christian had stopped talking to her and had treated her rudely every time she'd tried to start a conversation. Now, hurt and confused, she'd given up attempts at being nice. The situation just kept getting worse and worse.
Looking out through Lissa's eyes, I could see that he still cared about her and still wanted her. His pride had been hurt, however, and he wasn't about to show weakness.
"Yeah?" he said in a low, cruel voice. "I thought that was the way all royals were supposed to act. You certainly seem to be doing a good job with it. Or maybe you're just using compulsion on me to make me think you're a two-faced bitch. Maybe you really aren't. But I doubt it."
Lissa flushed at the word compulsion - and cast another worried look around - but decided not to give him the satisfaction of arguing anymore. She simply gave him one last glare before storming off to join a group of royals huddled over an assignment Returning to myself, I stared blankly around the classroom, processing what I'd seen. Some tiny, tiny part of me was starting to feel sorry for Christian. It was only a tiny part, though, and very easy to ignore.
At the beginning of the next day, I headed out to meet Dimitri. These practices were my favorite part of the day now, partly because of my stupid crush on him and partly because I didn't have to be around the others.
He and I started with running as usual, and he ran with me, quiet and almost gentle in his instructions, probably worried about causing some sort of breakdown. He knew about the rumors somehow, but he never mentioned them.
When we finished, he led me through an offensive exercise where I could use any makeshift weapons I could find to attack him. To my surprise, I managed to land a few blows on him, although they seemed to do me more damage than him. The impacts always made me stagger back, but he never budged. It still didn't stop me from attacking and attacking, fighting with an almost blind rage. I didn't know who I really fought in those moments: Mia or Jesse or Ralf. Maybe all of them.
Dimitri finally called a break. We carried the equipment we'd used on the field and returned everything to the supply room. While putting it away, he glanced at me and did a double take.
"Your hands." He swore in Russian. I could recognize it by now, but he refused to teach me what any of it meant. "Where are your gloves?"
I looked down at my hands. They'd suffered for weeks, and today had only made them worse. The cold had turned the skin raw and chapped, and some parts were actually bleeding a little. My blisters swelled. "Don't have any. Never needed them in Portland."
He swore again and beckoned me to a chair while he retrieved a first-aid kit. Wiping away the blood with a wet cloth, he told me gruffly, "We'll get you some."
I looked down at my destroyed hands as he worked. "This is only the start, isn't it?"
"Me. Turning into Alberta. Her...and all the other female guardians. They're all leathery and stuff. Fighting and training and always being outdoors - they aren't pretty anymore." I paused. "This...this life. It destroys them. Their looks, I mean."
He hesitated for a moment and looked up from my hands. Those warm brown eyes surveyed me, and something tightened in my chest. Damn it. I had to stop feeling this way around him. "It won't happen to you. You're too..." He groped for the right word, and I mentally substituted all sorts of possibilities. Goddess-like. Scorchingly sexy. Giving up, he simply said, "It won't happen to you."
He turned his attention back to my hands. Did he...did he think I was pretty? I never doubted the reaction I caused among guys my own age, but with him, I didn't know. The tightening in my chest increased.
"It happened to my mom. She used to be beautiful. I guess she still is, sort of. But not the way she used to be." Bitterly, I added, "Haven't seen her in a while. She could look completely different for all I know."
"You don't like your mother," he observed.
"You noticed that, huh?"
"You barely know her."
"That's the point. She abandoned me. She left me to be raised by the Academy."
When he finished cleaning my open wounds, he found a jar of salve and began rubbing it into the rough parts of my skin. I sort of got lost in the feel of his hands massaging mine.
"You say that...but what else should she have done? I know you want to be a guardian. I know how much it means to you. Do you think she feels any differently? Do you think she should have quit to raise you when you'd spend most of your life here anyway?"
I didn't like having reasonable arguments thrown at me. "Are you saying I'm a hypocrite?"
"I'm just saying maybe you shouldn't be so hard on her. She's a very respected dhampir woman. She's set you on the path to be the same."
"It wouldn't kill her to visit more," I muttered. "But I guess you're right. A little. It could have been worse, I suppose. I could have been raised with blood whores."
Dimitri looked up. "I was raised in a dhampir commune. They aren't as bad as you think."
"Oh." I suddenly felt stupid. "I didn't mean - "
"It's all right." He focused his attention back on my hands.
"So, did you, like, have family there? Grow up with them?"
He nodded. "My mother and two sisters. I didn't see them much after I went to school, but we still keep in touch. Mostly, the communities are about family. There's a lot of love there, no matter what stories you've heard."
My bitterness returned, and I glanced down to hide my glare. Dimitri had had a happier family life with his disgraced mother and relatives than I'd had with my "respected" guardian mother. He most certainly knew his mother better than I knew mine.
"Yeah, but...isn't it weird? Aren't there a lot of Moroi men visiting to, you know?..."
His hands rubbed circles into mine. "Sometimes."