"I have questions," the boy, obviously trying to be brave, said in a small voice.
His mother reached for him, but I held up my hand. "Hang on a sec." I smiled down at him. "What do you want to ask? Go ahead." Behind him, fear flashed over his mother's face, and she cast an anxious look at Dimitri. "I won't let anything happen to him," I whispered, though she had no way of knowing I could back that up. Nonetheless, she stayed where she was.
Reece rolled his eyes. "This is ridic--"
"If you're Strigoi," the boy interrupted loudly, "then why don't you have horns? My friend Jeffrey said Strigoi have horns."
Dimitri's eyes fell not on the boy but on me for a moment. Again, that spark of knowing shot between us. Then, face smooth and serious, Dimitri turned to the boy and answered, "Strigoi don't have horns. And even if they did, it wouldn't matter because I'm not Strigoi."
"Strigoi have red eyes," I explained. "Do his eyes look red?"
The boy leaned forward. "No. They're brown."
"What else do you know about Strigoi?" I asked.
"They have fangs like us," the boy replied.
"Do you have fangs?" I asked Dimitri in a singsong voice. I had a feeling this was already-covered territory, but it took on a new feel when asked from a child's perspective.
Dimitri smiled--a full, wonderful smile that caught me off guard. Those kinds of smiles were so rare from him. Even when happy or amused, he usually only gave half smiles. This was genuine, showing all his teeth, which were as flat as those of any human or dhampir. No fangs.
The boy looked impressed. "Okay, Jonathan," said his mother anxiously. "You asked. Let's go now."
"Strigoi are super strong," continued Jonathan, who possibly aspired to be a future lawyer. "Nothing can hurt them." I didn't bother correcting him, for fear he'd want to see a stake shoved through Dimitri's heart. In fact, it was kind of amazing that Reece hadn't already requested that. Jonathan fixed Dimitri with a piercing gaze. "Are you super strong? Can you be hurt?"
"Of course I can," replied Dimitri. "I'm strong, but all sorts of things can still hurt me."
And then, being Rose Hathaway, I said something I really shouldn't have to the boy. "You should go punch him and find out."
Jonathan's mother screamed again, but he was a fast little bastard, eluding her grasp. He ran up to Dimitri before anyone could stop him--well, I could have--and pounded his tiny fist against Dimitri's knee.
Then, with the same reflexes that allowed him to dodge enemy attacks, Dimitri immediately feinted falling backward, as though Jonathan had knocked him over. Clutching his knee, Dimitri groaned as though he were in terrible pain.
Several people laughed, and by then, one of the other guardians had caught hold of Jonathan and returned him to his near-hysterical mother. As he was being dragged away, Jonathan glanced over his shoulder at Dimitri. "He doesn't seem very strong to me. I don't think he's a Strigoi."
This caused more laughter, and the third Moroi interrogator, who'd been quiet, snorted and rose from his seat. "I've seen all I need to. I don't think he should walk around unguarded, but he's no Strigoi. Give him a real place to stay and just keep guards on him until further decisions are made."
Reece shot up. "But--"
The other man waved him off. "Don't waste any more time. It's hot, and I want to go to bed. I'm not saying I understand what happened, but this is the least of our problems right now, not with half the Council wanting to rip the other half's heads off over the age decree. If anything, what we've seen today is a good thing--miraculous, even. It could alter the way we've lived. I'll report back to Her Majesty."
And like that, the group began dispersing, but there was wonder on some of their faces. They too were beginning to realize that if what had happened to Dimitri was real, then everything we'd ever known about Strigoi was about to change. The guardians stayed with Dimitri, of course, as he and Lissa rose. I immediately moved toward them, eager to bask in our victory. When he'd been "knocked over" by Jonathan's tiny punch, Dimitri had given me a small smile, and my heart had leapt. I'd known then that I'd been right. He did still have feelings for me. But now, in the blink of an eye, that rapport was gone. Seeing me walk toward them, Dimitri's face grew cold and guarded again.
Rose, said Lissa through the bond. Go away now. Leave him alone.
"The hell I will," I said, both answering her aloud and addressing him. "I just furthered your case."
"We were doing fine without you," said Dimitri stiffly.
"Oh yeah?" I couldn't believe what I was hearing. "You seemed pretty grateful a couple minutes ago when I thought up the idea of you helping us against Strigoi."
Dimitri turned to Lissa. His voice was low, but it carried to me. "I don't want to see her."
"You have to!" I exclaimed. A few of the departing people paused to see what the racket was about. "You can't ignore me."
"Make her go away," Dimitri growled.
Lissa shouted in my head, shutting me up. Those piercing jade eyes stared me down. Do you want to help him or not? Standing here and yelling at him is going to make him even more upset! Is that what you want? Do you want people to see that? See him get mad and yell back at you just so you don't feel invisible? They need to see him calm. They need to see him... normal. It's true--you did just help. But if you don't walk away right now, you could ruin everything.
I stared at them both aghast, my heart pounding. Her words had all been in my mind, but Lissa might as well have strode up to me and chewed me out aloud. My temper shot up even more. I wanted to go rant at both of them, but the truth of her words penetrated through my anger. Starting a scene would not help Dimitri. Was it fair that they were sending me away? Was it fair that the two of them were teaming up and ignoring what I'd just done? No. But I wasn't going to let my hurt pride screw up what I'd just achieved. People had to accept Dimitri.
I shot them both looks that made my feelings clear and then stormed away. Lissa's feelings immediately changed to sympathy through the bond, but I blocked them out. I didn't want to hear it.
I'd barely cleared the church's grounds when I ran into Daniella Ivashkov. Sweat was starting to smudge her beautifully applied makeup, making me think she'd been out here for a while watching the Dimitri-spectacle too. She appeared to have a couple friends with her, but they kept their distance and chatted amongst themselves when she stopped in front of me. Swallowing my anger, I reminded myself she'd done nothing to piss me off. I forced a smile.