Or, well, it would have been. Like I said, I'd known exactly where Lissa would step and what she would do. And in those precious seconds before she acted, I broke out of my captors' hold and threw myself before Lissa. Someone leapt after me, but they were too late. That was when Tasha's gun had gone off. I felt a biting and burning in my chest, and then there was nothing but pain--a pain so complete and so intense it was almost beyond comprehension.
I felt myself falling, felt Lissa catching me and yelling something--maybe to me, maybe to someone else. There was so much commotion in the room that I didn't know what had happened with Tasha. There was just me and the pain that my mind was trying to block out. The world seemed to grow quieter and quieter. I saw Lissa looking down on me, shouting something I couldn't hear. She was beautiful. Brilliant. Crowned in light ... but there was darkness closing in around her. And in that darkness, I saw the faces ... the ghosts and spirits that always followed me. Thicker they grew, closing in. Beckoning.
A gun. I had been brought down by a gun. It was practically comical. Cheaters, I thought. I'd spent my life focusing on hand-to-hand combat, learning to dodge fangs and powerful hands that could snap my neck. A gun? It was so ... well, easy. Should I be insulted? I didn't know. Did it matter? I didn't know that either. All I knew in that moment was that I was going to die, regardless.
My vision was growing dimmer, the blackness and ghosts closing in, and I swore, it was like I could hear Robert whispering in my ear: The world of the dead won't give you up a second time.
Just before the light completely vanished, I saw Dimitri's face join Lissa's. I wanted to smile. I decided then that if the two people I loved most were safe, I could leave this world. The dead could finally have me. And I'd fulfilled my purpose, right? To protect? I'd done it. I'd saved Lissa, just like I'd sworn I'd always do. I was dying in battle. No appointment books for me.
Lissa's face shone with tears, and I hoped that mine conveyed how much I loved her. With the last spark of life I had left, I tried to speak, tried to let Dimitri know I loved him too and that he had to protect her now. I don't think he understood, but the words of the guardian mantra were my last conscious thought.
They come first.
I DIDN'T WAKE UP IN the world of the dead.
I didn't even wake up in a hospital or some other type of medical center--which, believe me, I'd done plenty of times. No, I woke up in luxury, in a huge bedroom with gilded furniture. Heaven? Probably not with my behaviors. My canopied bed had a red- and-gold velvet comforter, thick enough to be a mattress itself. Candles flickered on a small table against the far wall and filled the room with the scent of jasmine. I had no clue where I was or how I'd gotten here, but as my last memories of pain and darkness played out in my mind, I decided the fact that I was actually breathing was good enough.
"Sleeping Beauty awakens.'
That voice ... that wonderful, honey-like voice with its soft accent. It enveloped me, and with it came the impossible truth and its full impact: I was alive. I was alive. And Dimitri was here.
I couldn't see him but felt a smile come to my lips. "Are you my nurse?'
I heard him get up from a chair and walk over. Seeing him stand over me like that reminded me of just how tall he truly was. He looked down at me with a smile of his own--one of those full and rare smiles. He had cleaned up since last I'd seen him, his brown hair tied neatly back behind his neck, though he hadn't shaved for a couple days. I tried to sit up, but he tsked me back.
"No, no, you need to lie down.' Soreness in my chest told me he was right. My mind might be awake, but the rest of me was exhausted. I had no idea how much time had passed, but something told me my body had been fighting a battle--not with a Strigoi or anything like one, but with itself. A battle to stay alive.
"Then come closer,' I told him. "I want to see you.' He considered this a moment and then kicked off his shoes. Turning on my side-- which made me wince--I managed to wiggle over a little to make room near the bed's edge. He curled up beside me. Our faces rested on the same pillow, only a couple of inches apart as we gazed at each other.
"Is this better?' he asked.
With his long, graceful fingers, he reached out and brushed hair from my face before tracing the edge of my cheekbone. "How are you?'
He laughed softly and cautiously slid his hand down to rest on my lower back, in a sort of half-embrace. "Of course you are. I think they've only managed to get broth into you so far. Well, that and IV fluids early on. You're probably in sugar withdrawal.'
I cringed. I didn't like needles or tubes and was glad I hadn't been awake to see them. (Tattoo needles were a different matter.) "How long have I been out?'
"A few days.'
"A few days ...' I shivered, and he tugged the covers higher on me, thinking I was cold. "I shouldn't be alive,' I whispered. Gunshots like that ... they were too fast, too close to my heart. Or in my heart? I put my hand to my chest. I didn't know precisely where I'd been hit. It all ached. "Oh Lord. Lissa healed me, didn't she?' It would have taken so much spirit. She shouldn't have done that. She couldn't afford to. Except ... why would I still feel pain? If she'd healed me, she would have gone all the way.
"No, she didn't heal you.'
"No?' I frowned, unable to process that. How else would I have survived? A surprising answer came to mind. "Then ... Adrian? He'd never ... after how I treated him ... no. He couldn't have ...'
"What, you think he'd let you die?'
I didn't answer. The bullets might be long gone, but thinking of Adrian still made my heart--figuratively--ache.
"No matter how he feels ...' Dimitri hesitated. This was a delicate topic, after all. "Well, he wouldn't have let you die. He wanted to heal you. But he didn't either.'
I felt bad for thinking so little of Adrian. Dimitri was right. Adrian never would have abandoned me out of spite, but I was rapidly running out of options here. "Then who? Sonya?'
"No one,' he said simply. "Well, you, I suppose.'
"I ... what?'
"People can heal without magic now and then, Rose.' There was amusement in his voice, though his face stayed sober. "And your wounds ... they were bad. No one thought you'd survive. You went into surgery, and then we all just waited.'
"But why ...' I felt very arrogant, asking the next question. "Why didn't Adrian or Lissa heal me?'
"Oh, they wanted to, believe me. But in the aftermath, in the chaos ... the Court went under lockdown. They were both taken away and put under heavy protection before they could act. No one would let them near you, not when they still thought you might be a murderer. They had to be certain about Tasha first, even though her own actions were pretty damning.' It took me a moment to get past the idea that modern medicine and my body's own stamina had healed me. I'd grown too used to spirit. This didn't seem possible. As I tried to wrap my mind around the concept, the rest of Dimitri's meaning hit me. "Is Tasha ... still alive?'