Seeing the instructors made my heart clench. Not so long ago, that was how I'd pictured this day. I'd imagined Dimitri and me standing together, with him telling me to take this seriously and not to lose my cool when I was out on the field. Alberta had done a fair amount of mentoring for me since I'd returned from Russia, but as captain, she was out on the field herself now, busy with all sorts of responsibilities. She had no time to come in here and hold my hand. Friends of mine who might have offered comfort--Eddie, Meredith, and others--were wrapped up in their own fears. I was alone.
Without her or Dimitri--or, well, anyone--I felt a surprising ache of loneliness flow through me. This wasn't right. I shouldn't have been alone. Dimitri should have been here with me. That's how it was supposed to have been. Closing my eyes, I allowed myself to pretend he was really there, only inches away as we spoke.
"Don't worry, comrade. I can do this blindfolded. Hell, maybe I actually will. Do you have anything I can use? If you're nice to me, I'll even let you tie it on." Since this fantasy would have taken place after we'd slept together, there was a strong possibility that he would have later helped me take off that blindfold--among other things.
I could perfectly picture the exasperated shake of his head that would earn me. "Rose, I swear, sometimes it feels like every day with you is my own personal trial."
But I knew he'd smile anyway, and the look of pride and encouragement he'd give me as I headed toward the field would be all I needed to get through the tests--
"Are you meditating?"
I opened my eyes, astonished at the voice. "Mom? What are you doing here?"
My mother, Janine Hathaway, stood in front of me. She was just a few inches shorter than me but had enough fight in her for someone twice my size. The dangerous look on her tanned face dared anyone to bring on a challenge. She gave me a wry smile and put one hand on her hip.
"Did you honestly think I wouldn't come to watch you?"
"I don't know," I admitted, feeling kind of guilty for doubting her. She and I hadn't had much contact over the years, and it was only recent events--most of them bad--that had begun to reestablish our connection. Most of the time, I still didn't know how to feel about her. I oscillated between a little girl's need for her absent mother and a teenager's resentment over abandonment. I also wasn't entirely sure if I'd forgiven her for the time she "accidentally" punched me in a mock fight. "I figured you'd have, you know, more important things to do."
"There's no way I could miss this." She inclined her head toward the stands, making her auburn curls sway. "Neither could your father."
I hurried toward the doorway and peered out onto the fields. My view of the stands wasn't fantastic, thanks to all the obstacles on the field, but it was good enough. There he was: Abe Mazur. He was easy to spot, with his black beard and mustache, as well as the emerald green scarf knotted over his dress shirt. I could even barely make out the glint of his gold earring. He had to be melting in this heat, but I figured it would take more than a little sweat for him to tame down his flashy fashion sense.
If my relationship with my mother was sketchy, my relationship with my father was practically nonexistent. I'd met him back in May, and even then, it wasn't until after I'd gotten back that I found out I was his daughter. All dhampirs had one Moroi parent, and he was mine. I still wasn't sure how I felt about him. Most of his background remained a mystery, but there were plenty of rumors that he was involved with illegal business. People also acted like he was the kneecap-breaking type, and though I'd seen little evidence of this, I didn't find it surprising. In Russia, they called him Zmey: the serpent.
While I stared at him in astonishment, my mom strolled over to my side. "He'll be happy you made it in time," she said. "He's running some big wager on whether you'd show. He put his money on you, if that makes you feel any better."
I groaned. "Of course. Of course he'd be the bookie behind the pool. I should have known as soon as--" My jaw dropped. "Is he talking to Adrian?"
Yup. Sitting beside Abe was Adrian Ivashkov--my more-or-less boyfriend. Adrian was a royal Moroi--and another spirit user like Lissa. He'd been crazy about me (and often just crazy) ever since we first met, but I'd had eyes only for Dimitri. After the failure in Russia, I'd returned and promised to give Adrian a shot. To my surprise, things had been... good between us. Great, even. He'd written me up a proposal of why dating him was a sound decision. It had included things like "I'll give up cigarettes unless I really, really need one" and "I'll unleash romantic surprises every week, such as: an impromptu picnic, roses, or a trip to Paris--but not actually any of those things because now they're not surprises."
Being with him wasn't like it had been with Dimitri, but then, I supposed, no two relationships could ever be exactly alike. They were different men, after all. I still woke up all the time, aching over the loss of Dimitri and our love. I tormented myself over my failure to kill him in Siberia and free him from his undead state. Still, that despair didn't mean my romantic life was over--something it had taken me a while to accept. Moving on was hard, but Adrian did make me happy. And for now, that was enough.
But that didn't necessarily mean I wanted him cozying up to my pirate mobster father either.
"He's a bad influence!" I protested.
My mother snorted. "I doubt Adrian will influence Abe that much."
"Not Adrian! Abe. Adrian's trying to be on good behavior. Abe will mess everything up." Along with smoking, Adrian had sworn he'd quit drinking and other vices in his dating proposal. I squinted at him and Abe across the crowded stands, trying to figure out what topic could be so interesting. "What are they talking about?"
"I think that's the least of your problems right now." Janine Hathaway was nothing if not practical. "Worry less about them and more about that field."
"Do you think they're talking about me?"
"Rose!" My mother gave me a light punch on the arm, and I dragged my eyes back to her. "You have to take this seriously. Keep calm, and don't get distracted."
Her words were so like what I'd imagined Dimitri saying that a small smile crept onto my face. I wasn't alone out here after all.
"What's so funny?" she asked warily.
"Nothing," I said, giving her a hug. She was stiff at first and then relaxed, actually hugging me back briefly before stepping away. "I'm glad you're here."
My mother wasn't the overly affectionate type, and I'd caught her off guard. "Well," she said, obviously flustered, "I told you I wouldn't miss this."