I'm striding along the corridor, which leads back from the throne room, so busy looking out for potential threats that at first I don't notice that Lissa isn't beside me. I spin around, instantly alert, to see my best friend leaning against a wall a few paces back.
Her face is pale as she places a hand on her enormous belly. I'm immediately by her side.
"Liss, are you okay?" I ask concerned, placing a hand on her shoulder.
She shoots me a glare that soothes my worry. "I'm fine, Rose. Just lugging around another person everywhere I go."
I grin, now that I know she's okay. "You didn't have to call the council meeting in the throne room," I remind her, "You are the queen, you know. You could have called it in the bathroom and they still would've come."
Lissa laughs briefly, but then grimaces. My worry returns, and I lead her over to one of the benches placed strategically along the path. She sits down heavily and I lower myself into the seat beside her.
"Yeah," she smiles, masking her discomfort. "Christian would love the idea of me going into one of the bathrooms with Isaac Conta."
I laugh with her, imagining Christians face.
"You know," I tease, "He does have a point. Half the men in court would love to get you alone, married or not."
She rolls her eyes. "Like I could even fit through a normal doorway like this," she says, gesturing to her stomach, then she smirks at me. "And besides, you're in more danger than I am; you're not even married."
I groan. Not this again.
Dimitri, Lissa and Christian had all started pestering me lately to set a date for the wedding. I have a sneaky feeling that Dimitri's behind it, but I'd managed to keep him quiet using my feminine charms and Christian with a few well-placed punches. Lissa, however, knows that I'd never hurt her and as such is annoyingly persistent.
"Anyone can see you two are crazy about each other," she continues, "Why not just make it official?"
I don't respond, glancing at my watch to buy myself some time. I resort to the only tactic left in my artillery; avoidance.
"Aw, shoot. My shift ended seven minutes ago!" I exclaim, but she sees right through me.
"Rose, just…" but I don't let her finish.
"Got to go, Liss, see you later!"
"Rosemarie Hathaway!" she yells after me as I sprint away. "You cannot leave your pregnant queen unguarded!"
But I'm already rounding the corner and heading towards the stairs, passing her replacement guardian on the way.
"Guardian Hathaway," he nods in greeting, and I respond in kind.
Then I hurry up the stairs.
I'm not rushing because I'm worried about Lissa coming after me to continue her line of questioning; she couldn't catch up to me even if she didn't have a beach-ball-belly weighing her down and obscuring her feet.
Today Dimitri's schedule lines up with my own so we can actually have lunch together for once. I just need to get back to the apartment first because there's some left-over pasta in the fridge with my name on it. Don't get me wrong, I love the man, but Dimitri could clear out the entire kitchen for a light snack. And I'm a growing girl.
I reach the door just a little out of breath, finding that it's still locked. I can't help my tiny victory dance in the hallway; since my legs are half the length of his I don't beat him very often. I complete my silly display of joy, thankful that nobody was around to witness it, before unlocking the door.
I put my keys on the coffee table and then go into the kitchen to fetch plates and cutlery. There's more pasta left than I thought, so in a moment of kindness, I divide it between the two plates then heat it in the microwave.
By the time I've laid the table and set the two steaming plates of pasta down, my stomach sounds like a tractor engine and Dimitri still hasn't showed up. After waiting another five minutes, I figure he won't mind if I start without him.
I savour every bite of the creamy cheese sauce, eating slower than usual while waiting for the sound of the front door. I hear footsteps several times, but none of them stop outside and before I know it I've finished my food.
I take out my phone and dial his number. It rings, but he doesn't answer and it goes to voicemail.
"Belikov," says his recorded voice. "Leave a message."
"What's the holdup, Comrade?" I say after the beep. "Call me."
But my phone remains stubbornly silent after I hang up.
Well,I think angrily. If he thinks he can keep me waiting, he's got another thing coming.
I pull his plate of now lukewarm pasta towards me and start eating. It's not long before I've polished that one off too, so I get up, wash the dishes and then check my watch. It's almost time for my next shift.
I try his phone again, with the same result, before heading down to the guardian office, grumbling to myself the whole way there.
I greet the young guardian at the counter who stares at me in awe.
"I believe there were some files I was asked to look over?" I say, ignoring his expression.
He doesn't react and I clear my throat.
"Oh, er, yes!" he stammers, suddenly coming to life and flushing bright red. "Of course, Guardian Hathaway." Then he disappears behind the counter.
I drum my fingers on the counter as I wait, still internally hurling insults at Dimitri.
"Here," the guardian says, placing a stack of files in front of me.
"Thank you," I say with a smile, tucking them under my arm. "Guardian…"
"Oh, er, Strauss," he says, going red again.
I nod. "Guardian Strauss."
I turn and start walking away, but a familiar voice calls me back.
"Hathaway," barks Hans. "A word."
I follow him through the corridors to his office, where he turns and offers me a seat.
"How can I help?" I ask, keeping my tone professional and polite.
"We had a tip from a guardian in the field about a Strigoi nest," he says. "It'll take some co-ordinating, but I want you to lead the raid."
It's an immense tribute to Dimitri's teaching that I keep a straight face. Ever since the Moroi Attack initiative, Strigoi numbers have been dwindling. And despite the good things I've done, I'm fully aware that many higher ranked and more experienced guardians have been passed over to give me this opportunity.
"I'd be honoured, Sir," I say, with genuine surprise.
He nods. "I also wanted to ask your opinion on sending some Moroi with the guardians. You've seen them in action, what do you think?"
I pause to consider this. "It'll depend on the layout of the nest," I say, "but I'll discuss it with the King."
Hans accepts this with another nod and allows me to leave, turning to some files on his desk. As I open the door, he looks up and calls, "Oh, and send Belikov to me when you see him. He was supposed to meet with me."
I pause with my hand on the doorknob. "You haven't seen him?" I ask.
"No," he replies.
"We were supposed to have lunch, but he didn't show," I explain, now starting to worry.
He sits up straighter in his chair. "He probably just switched shifts with someone," he says, studying my expression with a frown. "Don't worry about him, he can handle himself."
I nod, turning to go through the door.
Despite his reassurances, I can't shake the small seed of dread that seems to have taken root in the pasta I'm digesting.
I know Dimitri's schedule by heart. He should be on duty, guarding Christian, I think. So I need to find Christian.
I hurry up the stairs to Lissa's room, opening the door without knocking.
She looks up from her desk and smirks when she sees me.
"Why, if it isn't Mrs Belikov-"
I cut her off. "Where's Christian?" I demand.
She's about to reprimand me when she sees my face.
"I don't know," she says frowning, "I haven't seen him. Rose, what's wrong?" Her face is concerned.
I start pacing. "It's Dimitri," I tell her. "He didn't show for lunch and he missed a meeting with Hans."
"Relax, Rose," she soothes, "He probably switched shifts with someone."
I shake my head. "He would have called me!" I say, starting to panic.
"Have you phoned him?" she asks, her brow furrowing.
"He's not answering," I reply, annoyed by her line of questioning.
"Okay, calm down, I'll call Christian."
I try to do as she says while she takes her phone out and dials. I pace up and down, taking deep breaths while trying to come up with possibilities.
"He isn't picking up," Lissa says, worry now in her voice too. "Let me make a few more calls."
She stands up with a grunt and I help her waddle over to the couch. She tries to get me to sit next to her, but I resume my pacing as she talks to various people. I try to tune out her conversations as I focus on keeping calm. Finally she hangs up.
"He was in a meeting this morning, but nobody's seen him since lunch time," there's a definite note of panic in her voice now.
"I'll be right back," I say.
I find another guardian and send them to her room while I search in every place I can think of. He's not patrolling the courtyard and there's nobody in Christian's study. There are a few guardians and Moroi training in the gym, but none have the right height or hair colour. After drawing a blank in the surveillance room too, I make my way back to Lissa.
"Anything?" she asks, looking up hopefully as I enter, but my expression says it all and she sags back into the couch. She dials Christian's number again but gets the same result as the last hundred times she tried.
Suddenly, my phone buzzes in my pocket and I wrench it out with shaking fingers.
"It's him!" I almost shout, "It's Dimitri!" My relief is evident in every syllable.
Lissa looks up. "Is he okay? Is he with Christian?" Her face is drawn with worry.
My relief is replaced with confusion as I open the message.
Gelp. Codr oink
Despite the fact that it's his second language, Dimitri is a stickler for spelling and grammar. I could count the amount of typos he's ever sent on one hand.
"What is it?" Lissa asks, getting frantic. "What does it say?"
I walk over to where she's sitting and show her the text.
"Codr oink?" she sounds as confused as I am.
"He's either drunk or in trouble," I say.
She nods in agreement. "It's like he typed it without looking at the screen."
My face lights up. "That's it! Lissa, you're a genius!"
"What?" she asks. "Rose, what?"
"Look," I say, pointing to my keyboard. "G is right next to H. He meant help!"
My excitement drains away as this information sinks in. I look over at Lissa in panic, but she's studying the keyboard intently.
"And look how close 'r' and 'e' are. It's supposed to say 'code'."
I look down and see that she's right.
"Okay, 'Help. Code oink'," I say, fighting to remain calm. "He's trying to tell us where he is. But oink?"
She seems as stumped as I am. "Get me a pen and some paper," she instructs. "Then try phoning him again."
I do as she says, dialling his number as Lissa starts scribbling furiously. As before, it rings and then goes to voicemail. Even though I know it's futile by this point, after the tone I can't help but hiss, "Dimitri Belikov, I swear, after I find you, your phone's GPS will be on permanently."
I hang up and stare dejectedly out the window until Lissa calls me over.
"Okay," she says, "I've narrowed it down."
She shows me her list, but the amount of letters and scratching out renders it illegible to my distracted brain.
As if sensing this, Lissa begins, "I thought that the 'o' was the most likely to be wrong, so I substituted it with the surrounding letters and got three choices. I sincerely hope it's not 'Code kink'," she shudders.
Despite my worry, I smile a little. "No," I agree. "What are the others?"
"If I'm right, it's either 'link' or 'pink'," she says, looking up at me. "Either of those mean anything to you?"
I wrack my brain.
"Well there is a Guardian Lincoln who everyone calls 'Linc'. But it's not spelt the same and I'm pretty sure he was transferred to England anyway, so that doesn't really make sense," I say. "But then neither does 'pink'."
I let out a frustrated sigh. I know Dimitri! Surely I should be able to think like he does, decipher this message that was obviously perfectly clear to him?
Lissa's gone back to her scribbling, but she looks up again when I speak. "If I were Dimitri, I'd try describing something," I muse. "Something about my surroundings, something distinct to let us know where he is. But I don't get it. Where is there any pink in the castle?"
Suddenly, Lissa's face goes white.
"Rose," her voice is strangled. "Ana's playroom is pink! It's Ana!"
Her eyes are wide and her hands are shaking, but she calms down as a thought occurs to her.
"No, wait, the nanny would have told us if something had happened," she breathes, sinking back into her chair. "She would have come to find me."
"Er, Liss?" I say carefully, not wanting to freak her out again. "Didn't you tell me yesterday that the nanny's away for two weeks, visiting her sister?"
Her eyes widen once more before they lock with mine.
"Go!" she says, but I'm already out the door.
I race down the hall, drawing my stake as I go. I wrench the door open and freeze in shock.
Across the room at the tiny table, the lower half of Christian's face is covered in vivid scarlet. I'm by his side in three steps.
"Christian," I say in my guardian voice, calm but firm. "Where does it hurt? Where's Ana?"
"Rose!" he exclaims. "You're here!"
"Yes," I say. "Tell me what happened."
But I'm distracted by a familiar voice coming from my right. "Roza! Slava Bogu!"
"Dimitri!" I almost a sob. I turn towards him, intending to hurl myself at him, but instead I almost scream. His hair, his beautiful long brown hair, is sticking up in a hundred different directions like someone attacked him with a razor.
"Isn't he pretty?" says a delighted voice behind me. Slowly, my emotional high at finding them safe wares off and I realize that an explanation is required.
I turn and crouch down next to the tiny princess, leveling my gaze with hers.
"Ana," I say calmly, "What happened here?"
She grins at me. "Papa and Uncle Tree are my prisoners!" she cries jovially.
I face the two men and study the scene once again, more closely now that I know they're not in danger. They both look at their feet, avoiding my gaze.
What I thought was blood on Christian's face appears to be red lipstick smeared liberally around his mouth. Violent pink eyeshadow is streaked around his eyes, with black splotches that must be mascara and glitter on his cheeks and in his hair.
I shift my attention to Dimitri and the hairstyle that I understandably mistook as a sign that he'd been attacked. I can now see the faint sparkles of the glittery pink hairbands and fake butterflies through his tangled locks. There's one knotted attempt at a plait trailing into his face and I'm pretty sure I can detect several broken comb teeth in the hopeless clumps.
I'm desperately trying not to laugh, and I succeed until I notice that both of them are wedged tightly into tiny pink plastic kiddie's chairs, with their hands tied behind their backs. And that's when I physically cannot hold it back any more.
I double over as my laughter echoes off the walls, tears streaming down my face. I quickly reach the point where I can't draw breath, and it comes out in a strangled wheeze while my face glows red. I'm struggling to control my bladder because I'm laughing so hard, and the fact that I can feel the stony glares of the guys only makes it worse.
Eventually, hiccuping and gasping for air, I compose myself enough to take my phone out my pocket and snap a picture to send to Lissa. I ignore their indignant shouts as the flash goes off and I add a caption, still wheezing slightly.
Everyone's okay, but you have to see this! I type, and then hit send.
I look at Christian and Dimitri, and the latter raises an eyebrow as I work to control my expression.
"Are you done?" he asks.
I clear my throat before answering, my voice slightly hoarse. "Yes. Sorry." I say, though I'm not.
"Can you help us out of these?" asks Christian, wincing. "I kind of can't feel my legs."
I take out my knife and cut through their bonds then, kneeling down to examine the joints of the chair, I manage to free them by sawing through the base of each chair's left arm. The entire process takes about fifteen minutes.
Christian remains in a crouch, trying to rub some feeling back into his legs, while Dimitri gingerly stands and walks over to where Ana sits giggling on the carpet.
He stands close to her so that she has to crane her neck to look up into his disapproving face.
"Anarosa," he says, his tone stern. "Did you have fun?"
Her grin falters slightly, but it returns as she answers, "Yes, Uncle Tree!"
The kid's got guts, I'll give her that. I've been on the receiving end of that expression several times and not once was I able to smile back at him. While it's not the angriest I've ever seen him, I haven't seen him this mad in a while.
"And do you think that your father and I had fun?" continues Dimitri. It takes some skill to be that menacing with bunches of hair sticking out of your head.
This time her smile evaporates. "Yes?" she says, but her voice is softer and it comes out as a question.
"Well we didn't. At all," he tells her, and she looks at her feet in silence.
"You made Aunty Rose worry," he presses on, "And your mother too. They didn't know where we were."
The princess attempts to make herself as small as possible and Dimitri silently waits, watching her.
After a minute, she raises her head and looks up at him.
"I'm sorry, Uncle Tree," she says, almost in a whisper.
Christian stares open mouthed from his position on the floor. The princess has a reputation as a spoiled child, but from the look of it he'd never heard her apologise before. It honestly wouldn't surprise me if he hadn't.
Dimitri lets her stew in her guilt for a few more moments, and then crouches down and puts a hand on her shoulder. It's comically large in contrast to the small princess.
"It's okay," he says gently. "But you have to promise not to do anything like this again. Okay?"
Tears spring to Ana's eyes as she nods. "I promise," she says.
Then she surprises Dimitri by hugging him. He freezes initially, but then he wraps an arm around her tiny frame.
He's good at so many things, it really shouldn't surprise me that he's so great with children. But I've seen him become a whirlwind of furious destruction, a vengeful Russian god. I can't help comparing that ferocious Dimitri to the gentle one crouching in front of me. And for the first time I feel the loss in my heart like a physical blow, because I'll never be able to give him children.
He whispers something in her ear before releasing her and she looks at him with wide eyes and nods. Then she runs off to Christian, who looks even more astounded when his daughter flings her arms around his neck and apologizes to him.
Dimitri walks over to me and takes my hand. He smiles down at me and I look at his beautiful face with his warm brown eyes, remembering when I thought I'd never see him again. Then my eyes move once again to the tufts of tangled hair surrounding his head like a halo on steroids and a grin spreads across my face.
He sees my expression and rolls his eyes.
I feel a tug on my other hand and look down to see Ana's turquoise eyes.
"I'm sorry I made you worry, Aunty Rose," she says.
Dimitri releases my hand and I bend over.
"I'm just glad they're okay," I tell her. "But you know what? Those knots you tied were pretty darn fantastic."
She giggles. "I can teach you, if you want," she tells me and I laugh.
"I may just take you up on that," I say.
The little princess gets a sneaky expression on her face, puts her hand to her mouth and stretches on tiptoes to bring her mouth closer to my ear. I obligingly turn my head.
"Aunty Rose," she whispers, her breath tickling my ear. "Uncle Tree is good."
I look up at Dimitri and smile, while he raises an enquiring eyebrow.
"Yes," I agree, turning back to her. "He is."
"You should marry him," she whispers again, and without waiting for a response, she skips back to her father.
"I need to go say sorry to Mama," she says, and he obligingly follows her out of the room.
I turn to Dimitri.
"You want me to get those out for you?" I ask with a grin.
There's a strange smirk on his face, but at my words his expression changes to one of fervent gratitude.
"Please," he replies, and sits down so I can reach.
I start with the clips, trying to be gentle, but it's difficult when his hair is so knotted.
When I move on to the hair ties it's even harder not to hurt him.
"Ow!" he complains when I yank on a particularly tricky one with tiny pink bows attached, jerking it out of my grasp.
"Hold still!" I reprimand him, "I nearly had it."
Other than that, I remain silent throughout the process, turning things over in my mind.
Once I'm done, I comb through his hair with my fingers; brushing it will have to wait until we have more time. He stands up.
"Thank you for rescuing me," he says with a smile, stroking my face with his long fingers.
"I thought I lost you," I tell him and his expression turns tender.
"I'll always find my way back to you, Roza," he says softly, then he laughs. "Strigoi, I can handle no problem. Princess Anarosa on the other hand…"
I laugh with him, covertly watching him as he throws his head back. Then I speak in a rush, before I can change my mind.
"March thirteenth," I say, and he stops laughing immediately.
"What?" he asks, studying my face.
"That gives us three months to plan the perfect wedding. You win."
I've never seen anyone so happy in my entire life.
He practically drags me along, back to Lissa's room where her and Christian are sitting watching Ana playing on the carpet.
"We're getting married on the thirteenth of March," he announces as we walk in, grinning like an idiot.
Lissa squeals and starts gushing about dresses and venues and guest lists, while Christian gets up and hugs me with a huge smile.
Out the corner of my eye, I see Dimitri crouch down by Ana on the rug, passing her something that looks like a ten dollar bill. Then he winks at her and walks over to join the celebration.
I briefly wonder what that was about, before I'm enveloped in a gigantic hug from Lissa, laughing at the awkward angle she has to hold herself to keep her belly out the way.
Dimitri, who still hasn't stopped smiling, wraps me in an embrace of his own, and in the warmth of his arms I realize that I've never been this happy.
The second chapter, as promised. Sorry it's a little (okay, a LOT) longer than my usual stuff, it just sort of... happened. But thank you for sticking with me and reading it, I really hope you enjoyed it! If you did (or didn't and have some criticism) please leave a review to let me know! You have no idea how much your support means to me. I would also recommend favouriting, but I may be slightly biased.
Shout out to my unbeatable Beta reader, NB313! Her material is awesome, so why not head on over to her profile and give it a look?
I don't own Vampire Academy, or any of the characters.