"Why am I getting in trouble for messing up?" I asked tightly. "I mean, I saw Ryan mess up earlier. He didn't get in trouble. Isn't that the point of this whole exercise? Practice? If we were perfect, you'd already have unleashed us upon the world!"
"Weren't you listening?" said Stan. I swore I could see a vein throbbing in his forehead. I think he was the only one there as upset as I was. At the very least, he was the only one (aside from me) showing his emotions. The others wore poker faces, but then, none of them had witnessed what had happened. If I'd been in Stan's place, I might have thought the worst of me too. "You didn't mess up, because 'messing up' implies that you have to actually do something."
"Okay, then. I froze." I looked at him defiantly. "Does that count as messing up? I cracked under the pressure and blanked out. It turns out I wasn't prepared. The moment came, and I panicked. It happens to novices all the time."
"To a novice who has already killed Strigoi?" asked Emil. He was from Romania, his accent a bit thicker than Dimitri's Russian one. It wasn't nearly as nice, though. "It seems unlikely."
I dealt out glares to him and everyone else in the room. "Oh, I see. After one incident, I'm now expected to be an expert Strigoi killer? I can't panic or be afraid or anything? Makes sense. Thanks, guys. Fair. Real fair." I slumped back in my seat, arms crossed over my chest. There was no need to fake bitchy defiance. I had plenty of it to dish out.
Alberta sighed and leaned forward. "We're arguing semantics. Technicalities aren't the point here. What's important is that this morning, you made it very clear you did not want to guard Christian Ozera. In fact ... I think you even said you wanted us to be sure we knew that you were doing it against your will and that we'd soon see what a horrible idea it was." Ugh. I had said that. Honestly, what had I been thinking? "And then, when your first test comes around, we find you completely and utterly unresponsive."
I nearly flew out of my chair. "That's what this is about? You think I didn't protect him because of some kind of weird revenge thing?"
All three of them stared at me expectantly.
"You aren't exactly known for calmly and gracefully accepting things you don't like," she replied wryly.
This time, I did stand up, pointing my finger at her accusingly. "Not true. I have followed every rule Kirova laid down for me since coming back here. I've gone to every practice and obeyed every curfew." Well, I'd fudged some of the curfews but not willfully. It had always been for the greater good. "There's no reason I'd do this as some kind of revenge! What good would it do? Sta - Guardian Alto wasn't going to really hurt Christian, so it's not like I'd get to see him punched or anything. The only thing I would accomplish is getting dragged into the middle of something like this and possibly facing removal from the field experience."
"You are facing removal from the field experience," replied Celeste flatly.
"Oh." I sat down, suddenly not feeling as bold. Silence hung in the room for several moments, and then I heard Dimitri's voice speak from behind me.
"She has a point," he said. My heart thumped loudly in my chest. Dimitri knew I wouldn't take revenge like that. He didn't think I was petty. "If she were going to protest or take revenge, she'd do it in a different way." Well, not too petty, at least.
Celeste frowned. "Yes, but after the scene she made this morning..."
Dimitri took a few steps forward and stood beside my chair. Having his solid presence nearby comforted me. I had a flash of déjà vu, back to when Lissa and I had returned to the Academy last autumn. Headmistress Kirova had nearly expelled me, and Dimitri had stood up for me then too.
"This is all circumstantial," he said. "Regardless of how suspicious you think it looks, there's no proof. Removing her from the experience - and essentially ruining her graduation - is a bit extreme without any certainties."
The committee looked thoughtful, and I focused my attention on Alberta. She had the most power here. I'd always liked her, and in our time together, she'd been strict but always scrupulously fair. I hoped that would still hold true. She beckoned Celeste and Emil toward her, and the other two guardians leaned closer. They had a whispered conference. Alberta gave a resigned nod, and the others leaned back.
"Miss Hathaway, do you have anything you'd like to say before we tell you our conclusions?"
That I'd like to say? Hell, yeah. There were tons of things. I wanted to say that I wasn't incompetent. I wanted to tell them that I was one of the best novices here. I wanted to tell them that I had seen Stan coming and had been on the verge of reacting. I especially wanted to tell them that I didn't want to have this mark on my record. Even if I stayed in the field experience, I'd essentially have an F for this first test. It would affect my overall grade, which could subsequently affect my future.
But again, what choice did I have? Tell them that I'd seen a ghost? The ghost of a guy who'd had a major crush on me and who had quite likely died because of that crush? I still didn't know what was going on with these sightings. One time I could write off to exhaustion...but I'd seen him - or it - twice now. Was he real? My higher reasoning said no, but honestly, it didn't matter at the moment. If he was real and I told them, they'd think I was crazy. If he wasn't real and I told them, they'd think I was crazy - and they'd be right. I couldn't win here.
"No, Guardian Petrov," I said, hoping I sounded meek. "Nothing more to add."
"All right," she said wearily. "Here's what we've decided. You're lucky you have Guardian Belikov to advocate for you, or this decision might have been different. We're giving you the benefit of the doubt. You'll go on with the field experience and continue to guard Mr. Ozera. You'll just be on a probation of sorts."
"That's okay," I said. I'd been on probation for most of my academic life. "Thank you."
"And," she added. Uh-oh. "Because the suspicion isn't entirely removed, you'll be spending your day off this week doing community service."
I jumped out of my chair again. "What?"
Dimitri's hand wrapped around my wrist, his fingers warm and controlling. "Sit down," he murmured in my ear, tugging me toward the chair. "Take what you can get."
"If that's a problem, we can make it next week too," warned Celeste. "And the next five after that."
I sat down and shook my head. "I'm sorry. Thank you."
The hearing dispersed, and I was left feeling weary and beaten. Had only one day gone by? Surely the happy excitement I'd felt before the field experience had been weeks ago and not this morning. Alberta told me to go find Christian, but Dimitri asked if he could have some time alone with me. She agreed, no doubt hoping he'd set me on the straight and narrow.