"I'm nervous, Mama…" Lara was almost crying as she sat in her packed-up dorm room as Rose braided her hair, lovingly sweeping the long dark blonde locks up into a stylish up-do.

"I was apprehensive when I graduated, too. It's going to be ok," Rose replied, trying not to cry as she styled her 'baby's' hair ahead of her graduation from St. Vladimir's. Lara was eighteen, now. Almost two decades had passed in close to the blink of an eye.

"I worry what people are going to think…"

"You can't control what other people think. You live your life by your rules. You do what you want when you want it," Rose said, meaning every syllable she uttered.

"Everyone expects me to take my promise and be allocated…"

"Your Papa, Daddy and I don't care. If you want to go to college, and not as someone's Guardian, we couldn't be prouder. Dede is over the moon you've chosen to major in business - he already thinks you'll take over his affairs when he retires…"

Lara's hair complete, Rose leaned in from behind cuddling her daughter as their eyes met in the mirror.

"Thank you," Lara said, tears welling. "You, Papa and D. You're my everything! Maxim, Danila and Anastasia, too!"

"You made me a Mama," Rose said, shrugging as tears rolled down her face. At forty-three, Rose still felt young; until she remembered she and Dimitri had an eighteen-year-old, another who was seventeen, a fifteen-year-old and a 'baby' who was now fourteen. All four attending St. Vladimir's, today they were here with their extended family to see Lara Belikov graduate.

Just mother and daughter in Lara's dorm room, Rose took a minute to reflect on the journey they'd traveled to get here. Schooling her with humans and training Lara at home until middle school, she'd then left to spend Monday through Friday at St. Vlad's. Rose or Dimitri had tearfully dropped their little girl off every Moroi Monday 'morning', then one of them had collected her after class on Friday afternoons to spend her weekend at home. The family living on a daylight schedule, and Lara living nocturnally had presented some difficulties, but they got into a schedule, and it worked for them as each of their children had transitioned to attending St. Vladimir's.

'D' being at St. Vlad's had made a huge difference for Lara. Ever since she could remember, Lara had known Eddie was her biological dad. He was her Godfather – Maxim, Danila and Anastasia's, too – but being her Daddy meant they had a special bond he didn't share with the others. They hadn't disclosed information about their connection to anyone at St. V's, but from the moment she'd arrived, Guardian Castile had taken a special interest in Novice Belikov – mentoring her one-on-one. As the other Belikov kids arrived, he'd included them, too.

"She's here, isn't she?" Lara asked, referring to her biological mother. Just as Rose and Dimitri had been honest with Lara about her biological father, they'd shared information about her bio mother, too. Her Majesty, Queen Vasilisa Dragomir, was here to confer the St. Vladimir's diplomas this year, and as the first time Lara would come face to face with her biological mother, she didn't know how to feel.

"She is," Rose confirmed. "I knew she'd come today. It's a big day for you, and you are her daughter."

"You're my Mama," Lara asserted softly, not knowing how to explain her emotions about seeing her biological mother. She didn't know how she felt, but that she knew.

Rose smiled. "I am, baby. I chose to be your Mama even before you were born. Nothing will ever change that."

"I don't know how I'm going to feel when I see her…"

"However you feel is ok. Whatever you want to do is ok." Rose took a deep breath, swallowing before she continued. She wasn't thrilled Lissa would be meeting Lara today, but it was bound to happen sometime. For the sake of her daughter, Rose would put a good face on things. "We all love you. Papa, D, Maxim, Danila, Anastasia and me. Your grandparents, aunts, and cousins, too! You do whatever you feel is right. We love you unconditionally, Lara."

"How's she going?" Eddie asked as soon as Rose joined him and Dimitri downstairs, Lara having joined her classmates to line up for graduation.

"She's alright. Just a little freaked about meeting Lissa. Where are the kids?" Rose asked turning to her husband. At fifty, Dimitri had aged well. There was salt and pepper in his dark hair, and he wore it short now, but he was in excellent shape still working out every day. Most nights, too, Rose thought to herself with a little smirk. Twenty-five years on and that hadn't changed.

"Maxim and Danila are around here somewhere with their friends. Stasia is showing Joy around," Dimitri replied.

Ten-year-old Joy Ozera had been a surprise baby, the result of Frankie's shot running out early. The moment Christian knew Frankie was pregnant, he went to Lissa and explained the situation, the two agreeing to divorce. Announced via an official release from the Palace, it came as a shock to no one. Despite Christian's periodic appearances at Court, their marriage had clearly been over a long time ago. Christian and Frankie had married in a very small ceremony, welcoming Joy Gabriella Ozera four months later. The three still lived in New York, although Joy was due to start at an Academy next school year. Christian and Frankie wanted her somewhere close to home; however, Joy had other ideas – determined to join her 'cousins' at St. Vlad's.

"Uncle Adrian and Auntie Sydney let Declan come to St. Vlad's," Joy could be heard arguing, rounding the corner with her parents and Anastasia. "And Veronica is coming next year…"

"Rose!" Frankie greeted, happy for any excuse to avoid Joy's whining. "Big day!"

"It is," Rose admitted, looking around. "It doesn't seem that long since my graduation…"

Dimitri's face momentarily darkened. The final months of Rose's senior year and the events that followed were something they rarely talked about, these days. Literally half a lifetime ago, he still remembered all he had done during his time staying with Galina in Russia then afterward back in America.

"I know what you mean," Frankie said, turning to look at her daughter fondly. "It doesn't seem so long ago I was off to St. Agnes' and now Joy is ready to head off."

"Have you decided which school you'll send her to?" Rose asked quietly, so Anastasia and Joy wouldn't overhear.

"I think it's going to have to be St. Vlad's," Frankie said with a sigh. "She wants to go with Veronica, and I suppose it makes sense. We'll just have to visit a lot."

"You're always welcome at ours," Rose replied. Over the years she and Frankie had become close. Best friends, really.

"Christian will love that! He likes coming to your place – there's always something different going on!"

Rose laughed. They did lead an exciting life! Their armory business was doing well, and through their work making items for movies, they'd chanced into a profitable sideline; training actors how to realistically fight using swords, stakes, and knives. A bastardized version of their own Guardian stake and sword training, leading actors would come and stay a few weeks or months in the guest quarters at the Belikov property, being trained by the Dhampir couple. Rose and Dimitri had even had parts in a couple of fighting scenes in Hollywood movies, much to the amusement of their children.

"Did I tell you Hugh Andrews is coming next month? He's going to be starring in a medieval knight film, so he needs to learn how to wield a longsword."

"Don't tell Joy. She thinks he's hot stuff!"

"Never mind Joy – I might send Stasia to your place for the duration. She has pictures of him all over her bedroom walls!"

"He is pretty easy on the eyes," Frankie tittered.

"Frankie! I have a daughter not much younger than he is," Rose said smirking. She was willing to bet both Frankie and Sydney would be finding a reason to visit the property while Hugh was staying. Frankie was right – he was good looking!

"What are you two giggling about?" Christian asked, looking at Rose and Frankie.

"Nothing," Rose smirked, coming over and putting her arm through Dimitri's. "Let's find Adrian and Sydney – they're around here somewhere. I want to get good seats!"

Eddie laughed. He'd popped into the auditorium earlier to witness two of Abe Mazur's Guardians reserving an entire row. There may have been some grumbling from other families who were jockeying for the best seats, but no one was silly enough to attempt to take what Zmey had declared his. "I think your father has that covered."

"Where is he, anyway?"

"Mama was feeling the heat, so she went inside with your parents, Pavel and Zoya," Dimitri explained. No one had been more stunned when Dimitri's mother had called to announce she intended to fly to America for Lara's graduation. Zoya, twenty-six now, accompanied Olena on the trip.

Sure enough there, in pride of place in the center of the row Abe had reserved sat Olena, happily chatting with Janine. In her mid-sixties now, and retired, Rose's mother was enjoying her time traveling around the world with Abe, stopping in Montana numerous times each year. Pavel had also retired and now lived in Russia supervising one of Abe's many houses. Janine had told Rose privately that 'supervising' meant bossing the young Guardians around shamelessly, including Abe's forty-year-old primary Guardian who Pavel maintained was far too young for such a responsible position. Still – he'd insisted on coming to Lara's graduation, always having been very fond of Rose's 'little girl.'


"Alberta!" Rose squealed, turning to see the former head of the Guard at St. Vladimir's. She'd stepped down from the position some years ago, so they'd created a position for her as the 'Student Assistance Director – Novices.' Basically, a fancy title that meant she was in charge of the welfare of the Novice students, including discipline, academic and career planning, and allocations. Now, at seventy-five, she'd finally retired. "I'm so glad you're here!"

"Like I'd miss it," Alberta chided. "And I'll be here for Maxim's next year, too. Then Danila's and Anastasia's."

"Is the house finished?"

"I moved in last week," Alberta replied with a grin. "In fact, I thought you might all like to come across for drinks after graduation?"

"Are you sure?" Rose asked, looking at the row as it filled up. 'You all' was a large number of people. "There's an awful lot of us, and I don't want to put you out…"

"Who's put out?! If I want food, I ring the kitchens, and it's delivered. If I need extra chairs, I ring the Guardians' office, and they send someone over with them. I have plenty of room and a large outdoor area. You'd all be very welcome."

"Then thank you. That would be wonderful!"

Alberta grinned sidling down the row and into a seat. She was pleased to have an opportunity to show off her new home. As she'd approached retirement age, Alberta had been in a quandary. Her modest Guardian pension would enable her to live out her days comfortably, and she was eligible to live in the Retired Guardians' home at Court, but Alberta hadn't wanted to leave St. Vlad's. Her home for so long, she'd been devastated at the idea of being turned out of the place to go somewhere new and unfamiliar. Finally admitting her fears to the current Principal, he'd approached the School Council who agreed in honor of her many years of service, a custom designed cottage would be built for Guardian Petrov within the Academy grounds. The unofficial 'grandma' to so many at St. Vlad's, Alberta would have a permanent place of her own there.

"Come on, boys!" Rose called out spotting Maxim and Danila wandering in with Declan, Sydney and Adrian's twelve-year-old son. Despite his rough start to life, Maxim Belikov was hard to miss. He was almost a carbon copy of his father, including his height. In nature more like Rose than Dimitri, their eldest son was a dedicated prankster and constantly getting scolded for something. Fortunately, he was so genial, no one had the heart to punish him too long or too hard.

At fifteen, Danila was just now going through his growth spurt. Her 'quiet' child, Danila was so like his Papa in nature it was hard to believe he wasn't Dimitri's biological son.

Shooing the boys towards their seats, Rose followed, sitting between Eddie and Dimitri as Sydney and Adrian found seats next to Christian and Frankie. Anastasia and Joy followed, chatting with Veronica, Declan's younger sister. The same age as Joy, the two were the very best of friends. Abe had been right to reserve a row. The Mazur / Belikov extended family and friends had grown into quite a number over the years.

"Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen," the Principal started. Mr. Morton, he'd replaced Kirova before Lara started. Probably a good thing, Rose pondered as she half listened to his spiel. Lara didn't deserve to be singled out or victimized for her mother's actions at St. Vlad's. Thankfully Lara had turned out to be studious, more like her biological mother than her adoptive one.

Tuning back in, Rose only just heard the cue to stand for her Majesty's entrance. Lissa walked in, graciously nodding to all and thanking Mr. Morton before standing at the lectern. Rose hadn't seen Lissa in several years and was surprised to see how much she'd started to resemble her mother, Rhea. Still slim, her complexion fair, the hands of time had found some purchase. There were subtle wrinkles on the once smooth skin, and her expression was more guarded than it had once been. It was hard to believe Lissa had reigned for a quarter of a century.

Seating themselves ready for her Majesty's remarks, Rose noticed Lissa's eyes scanning the Novices, first randomly, then looking at just the girls. It was only then it struck Rose – Lissa had no idea what her daughter looked like!

Making a pretty speech about the achievements of this year's graduates, soon enough it was time for the diplomas to be presented. Being near the beginning of the alphabet, Lara was one of the first to be called.

Standing and walking up to greet her mother, Rose could tell Lara and Lissa were both tense. Lissa went onto autopilot, smiling and passing Lara her diploma, but the Monarch's eyes were all over Lara, and Rose knew she didn't imagine the tears welling in her former best friend's eyes. The cheers as Lara crossed the stage was noteworthy. No other graduate had such a large number of people there to see them graduate.

Rose gripped Dimitri's hand tight as Lara walked off the stage, meeting their eyes and smiling before returning to her seat. Politely clapping as the other students graduated, it was a relief when Mr. Morton made his concluding remarks and graduation was officially over.

"Congratulations!" Rose said, getting to Lara first and holding her tight. "Your father, D, and I are so proud!" Eddie and Dimitri soon caught up, each hugging Lara and reiterating Rose's statements. The rest of their party were making their way to Lara when a Guardian appeared at Lara's side, his red tipped lapel declaring him part of the Queen's Guard.

"Guardian Belikov. Guardian Hathaway," he greeted solicitously, a little awed to have the chance to meet two legendary Guardians. Everyone in the Queen's Guard knew the story of Rose and Dimitri – it was passed down as some sort of legend, each new inductee being told about the Guardian who'd been the Queen's best friend, and taken a bullet for her, and her love affair with another Guardian - the former Strigoi. Officially still on 'leave of absence' from their Guardian duties, everyone knew the two now ran 'The Metal Shed' – the armory famous for their Belikov stakes.

"Yes?" Rose replied, not bothering to correct the young Guardian's blunder with her name.

"Her Majesty has requested a moment with Ms. Belikov."

Lara had chosen not to take her promise, instead electing to go to university. Secretly Rose could not be more thrilled.

"Mama?" Lara asked.

"Up to you, baby. You don't have to if you don't want to."

"You don't mind?"

"Of course not," Rose assured Lara, telling herself it had to happen one day.

Turning to wordlessly ask her fathers, they both nodded.

"I won't be long," Lara said quietly, accepting a last hand squeeze from Eddie. "Don't go anywhere, ok?"

"Ms. Belikov? I believe congratulations are in order? I understand you're off to Cornell for college?"

"Yes, your Majesty."

"That's a hard university to get into. Your family must be very proud?"

"They are. Thank you."

Lissa turned and motioned her guard to step back. They stepped back several feet before Lissa frowned and dismissed them entirely.

"Please forgive my Guardians. They can sometimes be a little overzealous…"

"I understand. After all, it is their job."

Lissa seemed uncharacteristically lost for words. Usually, she was able to sail through any situation with dignity and aplomb – but she'd never met her adult daughter before, so her usual poise was notably absent.

"Your Majesty? I know who you are," Lara volunteered, sensing the older woman's disquiet.

"Pardon?" Lissa asked faintly.

"I mean I know who you are to me. I know our connection."

"Your parents told you?"

"From the beginning. I've always known you're my biological mother."

"Oh. I see. I wasn't sure if they'd tell you. Were you happy growing up?" Lissa's face got even paler. This wasn't how she'd thought this chat might go.

"I had a wonderful childhood. Mama and Papa are the best parents anyone could wish for. Plus there's my brothers and sister. They're great, too. Maxim is almost a year younger than me; then there's Danila – he's adopted, too – and Anastasia is the youngest. Plus there's Guardian Castile. I call him D."

"He's been involved in your upbringing?" Lissa asked sounding surprised.

"From the beginning. He's like an uncle to the others, but I know he's my dad and we've always been close."

Lissa nodded wondering what else to say.

"Do you have any questions? I know I haven't been there for you… I can give you my card if you ever want to call?"

"Um sure, ok," Lara said, taking the gold-edged card Lissa passed to her.

"Would you like to have something to eat or drink? I could arrange some refreshments if you wanted to talk?" Lissa suggested hopefully, unnerved by how calm and composed her daughter was.

"Thank you, but I should probably join my family. They have something planned."

Looking across, Lissa noticed the auditorium had cleared out, leaving Lara's nearest and dearest chatting to one side as they waited for her to join them.

"Of course," Lissa said, giving Lara a stiff nod. Lara was very polite about it, but Lissa knew a dismissal when she heard it. "Good luck at college, Lara. It's a wonderful experience, and I'm sure you'll enjoy it."

"Thank you, your Majesty," Lara replied, curtseying before walking across to her parents.

Rose wrapped her arm around her eldest daughter, cuddling her close. Over Lara's shoulder, Rose's eyes met Lissa's, the latter nodding in acknowledgment and thanks. Rose returned her nod before steering Lara out into the commons and towards Alberta's house.

-00- The End -00-

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