"You're a fast learner," he said with approval.
I swelled under his praise. "Why does she call you Dimka?"
He laughed softly. I'd heard a lot of his laughter tonight and decided I'd like to hear more of it.
"It's a nickname for Dimitri."
"That doesn't make any sense. It doesn't sound anything like Dimitri. You should be called, I don't know, Dimi or something."
"That's not how it works in Russian," he said.
"Russian's weird," In Russian, the nickname for Vasilisa was Vasya, which made no sense to me.
"So is English."
I gave him a sly look. "If you'd teach me to swear in Russian, I might have a new appreciation for it."
"You swear too much already."
"I just want to express myself."
"Oh, Roza..." He sighed, and I felt a thrill tickle me. "Roza" was my name in Russian. He rarely used it. "You express yourself more than anyone else I know."
I smiled and walked on a bit without saying anything else. My heart skipped a beat, I was so happy to be around him. There was something warm and right about us being together.
Even as I floated along, my mind churned over something else that I'd been thinking about. "You know, there's something funny about Tasha's scars."
"What's that?" he asked.
"The scars...they mess up her face," I began slowly. I was having trouble putting my thoughts into words. "I mean, it's obvious she used to be really pretty. But even with the scars now ... I don't know. She's pretty in a different way. It's like...like they're part of her. They complete her." It sounded silly, but it was true.
Dimitri didn't say anything, but he gave me a sidelong glance. I returned it, and as our eyes met, I saw the briefest glimpse of the old attraction. It was fleeting and gone too soon, but I'd seen it. Pride and approval replaced it, and they were almost as good.
When he spoke, it was to echo his earlier thoughts. "You're a fast learner, Roza."
I WAS FEELING PRETTY GOOD about life when I headed to my before-school practice the next day. The secret gathering last night had been super fun, and I felt proudly responsible for fighting the system and encouraging Dimitri to go with Tasha. Better still, I'd gotten my first crack at a silver stake yesterday and had proven I could handle one. High on myself, I couldn't wait to practice even more.
Once I was dressed in my usual workout attire, I practically skipped down to the gym. But when I stuck my head inside the practice room from the day before, I found it dark and quiet. Flipping on the light, I peered around just in case Dimitri was conducting some kind of weird, covert training exercise. Nope. Empty. No staking today.
"Shit," I muttered.
"He's not here."
I yelped and nearly jumped ten feet in the air. Turning around, I looked straight into my mother's narrowed brown eyes.
"What are you doing here?" As soon as the words were out of my mouth, her appearance registered with me. A stretchy spandex shirt with short sleeves. Loose, drawstring workout pants similar to the ones I wore. "Shit," I said again.
"Watch your mouth," she snapped. "You might behave like you have no manners, but at least try not to sound that way."
"Guardian Belikov is in bed. He just got back a couple of hours ago and needed to sleep."
Another expletive was on my lips, and I bit it back. Of course Dimitri was asleep. He'd had to drive with Tasha to Missoula during daylight in order to be there during human shopping hours. He'd technically been up all of the Academy's night and had probably only just gotten back. Ugh. I wouldn't have been so quick to encourage him to help her if I'd known it'd result in this.
"Well," I said hastily. "I guess that means practice is canceled - "
"Be quiet and put these on." She handed me some training mitts. They were similar to boxing gloves but not as thick and bulky. They shared the same purpose, however: to protect your hands and keep you from gouging your opponent with your nails.
"We've been working on silver stakes," I said sulkily shoving my hands into the mitts.
"Well, today we're doing this. Come on."
Wishing I'd been hit by a bus on my walk from the dorm today, I followed her out toward the center of the gym. Her curly hair was pinned up to stay out of the way, revealing the back of her neck. The skin there was covered in tattoos. The top one was a serpentine line: the promise mark, given when guardians graduated from academies like St. Vladimir's and agreed to serve. Below that were the molnija marks awarded each time a guardian killed a Strigoi. They were shaped like the lightning bolts they took their name from. I couldn't gauge exact numbers, but let's just say it was a wonder my mom had any neck left to tattoo. She'd wielded a lot of death in her time.
When she reached the spot she wanted, she turned toward me and adopted an attack stance. Half expecting her to jump me then and there, I quickly mirrored it.
"What are we doing?" I asked.
"Basic offensive and defensive parrying. Use the red lines."
"That's all?" I asked.
She leapt toward me. I dodged - just barely - and tripped over my own feet in the process. Hastily, I righted myself.
"Well," she said in a voice that almost sounded sarcastic. "As you seem so keen on reminding me, I haven't seen you in five years. I have no idea what you can do."
She moved on me again, and again I just barely kept within the lines in escaping her. That quickly became the pattern. She never really gave me the chance to go on the offensive. Or maybe I just didn't have the skills to take the offensive. I spent all my time defending myself - physically, at least. Grudgingly, I had to acknowledge to myself that she was good. Really good. But I certainly wasn't going to tell her that.
"So, what?" I asked. "This is your way of making up for maternal negligence?"
"This is my way of making you get rid of that chip on your shoulder. You've had nothing but attitude for me since I arrived. You want to fight?" Her fist shot out and connected with my arm. "Then we'll fight. Point."
"Point," I conceded, backing up to my side. "I don't want to fight. I've just been trying to talk to you."
"Mouthing off to me in class isn't what I'd really call talking. Point."
I grunted from the hit. When I'd first begun training with Dimitri, I'd complained that it wasn't fair for me to fight someone a foot taller than me. He'd pointed out that I'd fight plenty of Strigoi taller than me and that the old adage was true: size doesn't matter. Sometimes I thought he was giving me false hope, but judging from my mom's performance here, I was starting to believe him.