And yet, as soon as the words came out, I reconsidered. My immediate associations with Dimitri were always intense and fierce; it was his sexy, battle-god persona that came to mind. Yet, it had been Dimitri's gentleness and thoughtfulness mixed with that deadliness that made him so wonderful. The same hands that wielded stakes with such precision would carefully brush the hair out of my face. The eyes that could astutely spot any danger in the area would regard me wonderingly and worshipfully, like I was the most beautiful and amazing woman in the world.

I sighed, consumed by that bittersweet ache in my chest that had become so familiar now. What a stupid thing, getting worked up over a loaf of bread of all things. But that was how it was. I got emotional whenever I thought about Dimitri.

Olena's eyes were on me, sweet and compassionate. "I know," she said, guessing my thoughts. "I know exactly how you feel."

"Does it get easier?" I asked.

Unlike Sydney, Olena had an answer. "Yes. But you'll never be the same."

I didn't know whether to take comfort from those words or not. After I finished eating, she gave me a brief grocery list, and I set off toward downtown, happy to be outside and moving. Inactivity didn't suit me.

While in the grocery store, I was surprised to run into Mark. I'd gotten the impression he and Oksana didn't come to town that often. I wouldn't have put it past them to grow their own food and live off the land. He gave me a warm smile. "I wondered if you were still around."

"Yeah." I held up my basket. "Just doing some shopping for Olena."

"I'm glad you're still here," he said. "You seem more... at peace."

"Your ring is helping, I think. At least with the peace. It hasn't done much as far as any decision making goes."

He frowned, shifting the milk he held in one arm to the other. "What decisions?"

"What to do now. Where to go."

"Why not stay here?"

It was eerie, so similar to the conversation I'd had with Viktoria. And my response was equally similar. "I don't know what I'd do if I stayed here."

"Get a job. Live with the Belikovs. They love you, you know. You fit right in with their family."

That warm, loved feeling came back, and I again tried to imagine myself just settling down with them, working in a store like this or waiting tables.

"I don't know," I said. I was a broken record. "I just don't know if that's right for me."

"Better than the alternative," he warned. "Better than running off with no real purpose, throwing yourself in the face of danger. That's no choice at all."

And yet, it was the reason I'd come to Siberia in the first place. My inner voice scolded me. Dimitri, Rose. Have you forgotten Dimitri? Have you forgotten how you came here to free him, like he would have wanted? Or was that really what he would have wanted? Maybe he would have wanted me to stay safe. I just didn't know, and with no more help from Mason, my choices were even more muddled. Thinking of Mason suddenly reminded me of something I'd totally forgotten.

"When we talked before... well, we talked about what Lissa and Oksana could do. But what about you?"

Mark narrowed his eyes. "What do you mean?"

"Have you ever... have you ever run into, um, ghosts?"

Several moments passed, and then he exhaled. "I'd hoped that wouldn't happen to you."

It astonished me then how much relief I felt to know I wasn't alone in my ghostly experiences. Even though I now understood that having died and been to the world of the dead made me a target for spirits, it was still one of the freakiest things about being shadow-kissed.

"Did it happen without you wanting it?" I asked.

"At first. Then I learned to control it."

"Me too." I suddenly recalled the barn. "Actually, that's not entirely true."

Lowering my voice further, I hastily recapped what had happened on my trip here with Sydney. I'd never spoken of it to anyone.

"You must never, ever do that again," he said sternly.

"But I didn't mean to! It just happened."

"You panicked. You needed help, and some part of you called out to the spirits around you. Don't do it. It's not right, and it's easy to lose control."

"I don't even know how I did it."

"Like I said, lapse of control. Don't ever let your panic get the best of you."

An older woman passed us, a scarf over her head and a basket of vegetables in her arms. I waited until she was gone before asking Mark, "Why did they fight for me?"

"Because the dead hate Strigoi. The Strigoi are unnatural, neither living nor dead-just existing in some state in between. Just as we sense that evil, so do the ghosts."

"Seems like they could be a good weapon."

That face, normally easy and open, frowned. "It's dangerous. People like you and me already walk the edge of darkness and insanity. Openly calling upon the dead only brings us closer to falling over that edge and losing our minds." He glanced at his watch and sighed. "Look, I have to go, but I'm serious, Rose. Stay here. Stay out of trouble. Fight Strigoi if they come to you, but don't go seeking them blindly. And definitely leave the ghosts alone."

It was a lot of advice to get in a grocery store, a lot of advice I wasn't sure I could follow. But I thanked him and sent my regards to Oksana before paying and leaving as well. I was heading back toward Olena's neighborhood when I rounded a corner and nearly walked right into Abe.

He was dressed in his usual flashy way, wearing that expensive coat and a yellow-gold scarf that matched the gold in his jewelry. His guardians hovered nearby, and he leaned casually against a building's brick wall.

"So this is why you came to Russia. To go to the market like some peasant."

"No," I said. "Of course not."

"Just sightseeing then?"

"No. I'm just being helpful. Stop trying to get information out of me. You're not as smart as you think you are."

"That's not true," he said.

"Look, I told you already. I came here to tell the Belikovs the news. So go back and tell whoever you're working for that that's that."

"And I told you before not to lie to me," he said. Again, I saw that odd mix of danger and humor. "You have no idea how patient I've been with you.

From anyone else, I would have gotten the information I needed that first night."

"Lucky me," I snapped back. "What now? Are you going to take me down an alley and beat me up until I tell you why I'm here? I'm losing interest in this whole scary-mob-boss routine, you know."

"And I'm losing patience with you," he said. There went the humor, and as he stood over me, I couldn't help but uneasily note that he was better built than most Moroi. A lot of Moroi avoided fights, but I wouldn't have been surprised if Abe had roughed up as many people as his bodyguards had. "And honestly? I don't care why you're here anymore. You just need to leave. Now."

"Don't threaten me, old man. I'll leave whenever the hell I want." It was funny, I'd just sworn to Mark that I didn't know if I could stay in Baia, but when pressured by Abe, I just wanted to dig my feet in. "I don't know what you're trying to keep me from, but I'm not scared of you." That also wasn't entirely true.

"You should be," he returned pleasantly. "I can be a very good friend or a very bad enemy. I can make it worth your while if you leave. We can strike a bargain."

There was an almost excited gleam in his eyes as he spoke. I recalled Sydney describing him manipulating others, and I got the feeling this was what he lived for-negotiating, striking trades to get what he wanted.

"No," I said. "I'll leave when I'm ready. And there's nothing you or whoever you're working for can do about it."

Hoping I appeared bold, I turned around. He reached out and grabbed my shoulder, jerking me back, nearly causing me to lose the groceries. I started to lunge forward in attack mode, but his guardians were right there in a flash. I knew I wouldn't get far.

"Your time is up here," hissed Abe. "In Baia. In Russia. Go back to the U.S. I'll give you what you need-money, first-class tickets, whatever."

I stepped out of his reach, backing carefully away. "I don't need your help or your money-God only knows where it comes from." A group of people turned the corner across the street, laughing and talking, and I stepped back further, certain Abe wouldn't start a scene with witnesses present. It made me feel braver, which was probably stupid on my part. "And I already told you: I'll go back whenever the hell I want."

Tags: Richelle Mead Vampire Academy Fantasy
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