"Funny, that's exactly my dream."
We left the class in lighter moods. Things had grown more friendly between us, and I decided that I could handle the next six weeks protecting him.
He and Lissa were going to meet in the library to study - or pretend to study - but he had to stop by his dorm first. So I followed him across the quad, back into the winter air that had grown chillier since sunset seven hours ago. The snow on the paths, which had turned slushy in the sun, had now frozen up and made walking treacherous. Along the way, we were joined by Brandon Lazar, a Moroi who lived in Christian's hall. Brandon could barely contain himself, recapping a fight he'd witnessed in his math class. We listened to his rendition, all of us laughing at the thought of Alberta sneaking in through the window.
"Hey, she might be old, but she could take on almost any of us," I told them. I gave Brandon a puzzled look. He had bruises and red splotches on his face. He also had a few weird welts near his ear. "What happened to you? Have you been fighting guardians too?"
His smile promptly disappeared, and he looked away from me. "Nah, just fell."
"Come on," I said. Moroi might not train to fight like dhampirs did, but they got in brawls with each other just as often as anyone else. I tried to think of any Moroi he might have a conflict with. For the most part, Brandon was pretty likeable. "That's the lamest, most unoriginal excuse in the world."
"It's true," he said, still avoiding my eyes.
"If someone's screwing with you, I can give you a few pointers."
He turned back to me, locking eyes. "Just let it go." He wasn't hostile or anything, but there was a firm note in his voice. It was almost like he believed saying the words alone would make me obey him.
I chuckled. "What are you trying to do? Compel me - "
Suddenly, I saw movement on my left. A slight shadow blending in with the dark shapes of a cluster of snowy pine trees - but moving just enough to catch my attention. Stan's face emerged from the darkness as he sprang toward us.
Finally, my first test.
Adrenaline shot through me just as strongly as if a real Strigoi were approaching. I reacted instantly, reaching out to grab both Brandon and Christian. That was always the first move, to throw my own life before theirs. I jerked the two guys to a halt and turned toward my attacker, reaching for my stake in order to defend the Moroi -
And that's when he appeared.
He stood several feet in front of me, off to Stan's right, looking just as he had last night. Translucent. Shimmering. Sad.
The hair on the back of my neck stood up. I froze, unable to move or finish going for my stake. I forgot about what I'd been doing and completely lost track of the people and commotion around me. The world slowed down, everything fading around me. There was only Mason - that ghostly, shimmering Mason who glowed in the dark and seemed like he so badly wanted to tell me something. The same feeling of helplessness I'd experienced in Spokane returned to me. I hadn't been able to help him then. I couldn't help him now. My stomach turned cold and hollow. I could do nothing except stand there, wondering what he was trying to say.
He lifted one translucent hand and pointed off toward the other side of campus, but I didn't know what it meant. There was so much over there, and it wasn't clear what he was pointing at. I shook my head, not understanding but desperately wishing I could. The sorrow on his face seemed to grow.
Suddenly, something slammed into my shoulder, and I stumbled forward. The world suddenly started up again, snapping me out of the dreamy state I'd just been in. I only barely managed to throw out my hands in time to stop myself from hitting the ground. I looked up and saw Stan standing over me. "Hathaway!" he barked. "What are you doing?" I blinked, still trying to shake off the weirdness of seeing Mason again. I felt sluggish and dazed. I looked into Stan's angry face and then glanced over at where Mason had been. He was gone. I turned my attention back to Stan and realized what had happened. In my distraction, I'd completely spaced while he'd staged his attack. He now had one arm around Christian's neck and one around Brandon's. He wasn't hurting them, but his point was made.
"If I had been a Strigoi," he growled, "these two would be dead."
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."