Christian, being who he was, said, "That's all you can do?"

Glaring, she handed him the stake. "You do better."

Christian stood, snarky smile disappearing as he studied the pillow critically and sized up his blow. As he did, Lissa glanced around and saw the humor in the guardians' eyes. Even Serena had relaxed. They were making their point, proving staking wasn't an easy thing to learn. I was glad, and my opinion of them rose.

Christian finally made his move. He did actually pierce the fabric, but the pillow and its stuffing proved too much to break through. And again, Grant wasn't shaken at all. After more failed attempts, Christian sat down again and handed the stake back. It was kind of fun to see Christian's cocky attitude shot down a little. Even Lissa enjoyed it, despite her own frustration over how difficult this was becoming.

"The stuffing's got too much resistance," Christian complained.

Grant handed his stake to Serena. "What, and you think a Strigoi's body is going to be easier to get through? With muscles and ribs in the way?"

Grant got back into his position, and without hesitation, Serena struck with the stake. Its point burst through the other side of the pillow, coming to a halt just in front of Grant's chest as tiny fluffy pieces of stuffing drifted to the ground. She jerked it out and handed it to him like it had been the simplest thing in the world.

Both Christian and Lissa stared in amazement. "Let me try again," he said.

By the time Priscilla called them to dinner, there wasn't a pillow in that hotel room left untouched. Boy, she was going to be surprised when she got the bill. Lissa and Christian hacked away with the stake while the guardians looked on with a superior air, confident their message was being delivered. Staking Strigoi was not easy.

Lissa was finally getting it. She realized that in some ways, piercing a pillow--or a Strigoi--wasn't even about understanding the principle. Sure, she'd heard me talk about lining your shot up to get to the heart and miss the ribs, but this was more than knowledge. A lot of it was strength--strength she physically didn't have yet. Serena, though seemingly petite, had spent years building up her muscle and could get that stake through practically anything. One hour-long lesson wouldn't give Lissa that kind of strength, and she whispered as much to Christian when the group went out to dinner.

"You're quitting already?" he asked, voice equally low as they rode in the backseat of an SUV. Grant, Serena, and a third guardian were there too, but they were deep in discussion.

"No!" Lissa hissed back. "But I've got to, like, train before I can do it."

"Like lift weights?"

"I... I don't know." The others were still talking to each other, but Lissa's topic was too dangerous for her to risk them hearing. She leaned close to Christian, unnerved yet again at how his closeness and familiarity affected her. Swallowing, she tried to keep her face impassive and stick to the topic. "But I'm just not strong enough. It's physically impossible."

"Sounds like you're giving up."

"Hey! You didn't make it through any of the pillows either."

He flushed slightly. "I almost got through that green one."

"There was hardly anything in it!"

"I just need more practice."

"You don't need to do anything," she shot back, fighting to keep her voice quiet through her anger. "This isn't your fight. It's mine."

"Hey," he snapped, eyes glittering like pale blue diamonds, "you're crazy if you think I'm going to just let you go and risk--"

He cut himself off and actually bit his lip, as though will alone wasn't enough to stop him from talking. Lissa stared at him, and both of us began wondering how he would have finished. What wouldn't he risk? Her putting herself in danger? That was my guess.

Even without talk, he spoke volumes with his expression. Through Lissa's eyes, I saw him drinking in her features and trying to hide his emotions. At last, he jerked away and broke that intimate space between them, getting as far from her as he could.

"Fine. Do whatever you want. I don't care."

Neither of them spoke after that, and since it was lunchtime for me, I returned to my own reality and welcomed a filing break--only to be informed by Hans that I had to keep working.

"Come on! Isn't it lunchtime? You have to feed me," I exclaimed. "That's just beyond cruel. At least throw me some crumbs."

"I did feed you. Or, well, you fed yourself when you inhaled that sandwich. You wanted your lunch break then. You got it. Now you keep working."

I slammed my fists against the endless piles of paper before me. "Can't I at least do something else? Paint buildings? Haul rocks?"

"I'm afraid not." A smile twisted the corners of his lips. "There's a lot of filing we need done."

"How long? How long are you going to punish me?"

Hans shrugged. "Until someone tells me to stop."

He left me alone again, and I leaned back in my chair, forcibly trying not to flip the table in front of me over. I thought it would make me feel momentarily better, but it also meant I'd have to redo the work I'd done. With a sigh, I returned to my task.

Lissa was at dinner when I tuned back into her later. It might have technically been in honor of her birthday, but really, it was all royal conversation with Priscilla. That was no way to spend a birthday, I decided. I'd have to make this up to her whenever I earned freedom. We'd have a real party, and I'd be able to give her my birthday present: gorgeous leather boots that Adrian had helped me acquire back at school.

Being in Christian's head might have been more interesting, but since that wasn't an option, I returned to my own and mulled over my earlier talk with Adrian. Was this punishment finally going to end? Was an official royal decree going to put me and Lissa together at last, despite the guardians' normal policy?

Trying to figure it out was like being on a hamster wheel. A lot of work. No progress. But it got me through the dinner conversation, and before I knew it, Lissa's group was getting up and heading for the restaurant's door. It was dark out now, and Lissa couldn't help but feel the weirdness of being on a human schedule. Back at school or the Court, this would be the middle of the day. Instead, they were now heading back to their hotel and would be going to bed. Well, probably not right away. I had no doubt that if Lissa and Christian could get over their current huff, they'd be back to stabbing more pillows. As much as I wanted those two dating again, I couldn't help but think they were a lot safer apart.

Or maybe not.

The group had hung out at the restaurant far past the normal dinner hour, so the lot was mostly empty as they walked across it. The guardians hadn't exactly parked in the back, but they weren't near the main entrance either. They had, however, made a point of parking next to one of the street lamps illuminating the lot.

Tags: Richelle Mead Vampire Academy Fantasy
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