Homecoming (Vampire Academy #6.5)


by Richelle Mead

Chapter 1

I hadn't expected to be back in Russia so soon. I certainly didn't want to be.

It wasn't that I had anything against the place. It was a nice enough country, with rainbow-colored architecture and vodka that could double as rocket fuel. I was fine with those things. My problem was that the last time I'd been here, I'd nearly gotten killed (on multiple occasions) and had ended up being drugged and kidnapped by vampires. That's enough to turn you off to any place.

And yet, as my plane began circling for its landing in Moscow, I knew coming back here was definitely the right thing to do.

"Do you see that, Rose?" Dimitri tapped the window's glass, and although I couldn't see his face, the note of wonder in his voice told me plenty. "St. Basil's."

I leaned over him, just barely catching a glimpse of the famous multicolored cathedral that looked more like something you'd find in Candy Land, not the Kremlin. To me, it was another tourist attraction, but to him, I knew it meant so much more. This was his homecoming, the return to a land he had believed he'd never see again in the sun, let alone through the eyes of the living. That building, the cities here ... they weren't just pretty postcard shots for him. They represented more than that. They represented his second chance at life.

Smiling, I settled back in my seat. I had the middle one, but there was no way it could be more uncomfortable than his. Putting a six-foot-seven-inch man by the window in coach was just cruel. He hadn't complained this entire time, though. He never did.

"Too bad we won't have time to hang out here," I said. Moscow was just a layover for us. "We'll have to save all our sightseeing for Siberia. You know, tundra. Polar bears."

Dimitri turned from the window, and I expected to be chastised for furthering stereotypes. Instead, I could tell from his expression that he hadn't heard anything after "Siberia." Morning light illuminated the sculpted features of his face and shone off his sleek brown hair. None of it could compare to the radiance within him.

"It's been so long since I've seen Baia," he murmured, his dark eyes filled with memories. "So long since I've seen them. Do you think ..." He glanced at me, betraying the first glimpse of nervousness I'd observed since beginning this trip. "Do you think they'll be glad to see me?"

I squeezed his hand and felt a small pang in my chest. It was so unusual to see Dimitri uncertain about anything. I could count on my hand the number of times I'd ever witnessed him truly vulnerable. From the moment we'd met, he'd always stood out as one of the most decisive, confident people I'd known. He was always in motion, never afraid to take on any threat, even if it meant risking his own life. Even now, if some bloodthirsty monster sprang out of the cockpit, Dimitri would calmly jump up and battle it while armed only with the safety card in his seat pocket. Impossible, dire fights were of no concern to him. But seeing his family after he'd spent time as an evil, undead vampire? Yeah, that scared him.

"Of course they'll be glad," I assured him, marveling at the change in our relationship. I'd started off as his student, in need of his reassurance. I'd graduated to become his lover and equal. "They know we're coming. Hell, you should've seen the party they threw when they thought you were dead, comrade. Imagine what they'll do when they find out you're actually alive."

He gave me one of those small, rare smiles of his, the kind that made me feel warm all over. "Let's hope so," he said, turning to gaze back out the window. "Let's hope so."

The only sights we saw in Moscow were inside its airport while we waited to catch our next flight. That one took us to Omsk, a middle-sized city in Siberia. From there, we rented a car and made the rest of our journey on land-no planes went where we were going. It was a beautiful drive, the land full of life and greenery that proved all my tundra jokes wrong. Dimitri's mood fluctuated between nostalgia and anxiety as we traveled, and I found myself restless to reach our destination. The sooner we got there, the sooner he'd see he had nothing to worry about.

Baia was a little less than a day's drive from Omsk and looked pretty much the same as it had on my last visit. It was out of the way enough that people rarely stumbled across it by accident. If you found yourself in Baia, there was a reason. And more often than not, that reason had to do with the large number of dhampirs living there. Like Dimitri and me, these dhampirs were half-human, half-vampire. Unlike Dimitri and me, most of these dhampirs had chosen to live apart from the Moroi-living, magic-wielding vampires-and instead mingled with human society. Dimitri and I were both guardians, pledged to guard the Moroi from Strigoi: the evil, undead vampires who killed to sustain their immortal existence.

Days were longer during this part of summer, and darkness had only just begun to fall when we reached Dimitri's family's house. Strigoi rarely ventured into Baia itself, but they liked to stalk the roads leading into town. The fleeting rays of sunlight ensured our safety and gave Dimitri a good view of the house. Even once he'd turned off the car, he sat for a long time, gazing out at the old, two-story structure. Red and gold light bathed it, giving it the appearance of something otherworldly. I leaned over and kissed his cheek.

"Showtime, comrade. They're waiting for you."

He sat for a few moments in silence, then gave a resolute nod and put on the kind of expression I'd seen him wear into battle. We left the car and had barely made it halfway through the yard when the front door burst open. Bright light spilled into the dusky shadows, and a young female silhouette appeared.

"Dimka!"

If a Strigoi had sprung out and attacked, Dimitri would have had to respond instantly. But seeing his youngest sister stunned his lightning-fast reflexes, and he could only stand there as Viktoria flung her arms around him and began uttering a torrent of Russian words too fast for me to follow.

It took Dimitri a few more shocked moments to come to life, but then he returned her fierce embrace, answering her back in Russian. I stood there awkwardly until Viktoria noticed me. With a cry of joy, she hurried over and gave me a hug as tight as the one she'd bestowed upon her brother. I admit, I was almost as shocked as him. When we'd last parted, Viktoria and I hadn't been on good terms. I'd made it clear I didn't approve of her relationship with a certain Moroi guy. She'd made it equally clear she didn't appreciate my input. It seemed now that was all forgotten, and although I couldn't translate the words she spoke, I got the impression she was thanking me for restoring Dimitri to her.

Viktoria's exuberant arrival was followed by the rest of the Belikov family. Dimitri's other two sisters, Karolina and Sonya, joined Viktoria in embracing both him and me. Their mother was right behind them. Russian flew fast and furious. Normally, a haphazard doorstep reunion like this would've made me roll my eyes, but I found myself tearing up instead. Dimitri had been through too much. We'd all been through too much, and honestly, I don't think any of us had ever expected to be sharing this moment.

At last, Dimitri's mother, Olena, recovered herself and laughed while wiping tears from her eyes. "Come in, come in," she said, remembering that I didn't know much Russian. "Let's sit down and talk."

Through more tears and laughter, we made our way into the house and cozy living room. It too was the same as my last visit, surrounded in warm wood paneling and shelves of leather-bound books with Cyrillic titles. There, we found more of the family. Karolina's son, Paul, regarded his uncle with fascination. Paul had barely known Dimitri before he struck out into the world, and most of what the boy knew came from fantastic-sounding stories. Sitting on a blanket nearby was Paul's baby sister, and another, much tinier baby lay sleeping in a bassinet. Sonya's baby, I realized. She'd been pregnant when I'd visited earlier that summer.

I was used to always being near Dimitri's side, but this was a moment when I knew I had to yield him. He sat on the sofa, and Karolina and Sonya immediately flanked him, wearing expressions that said they were afraid to let him out of their sight. Viktoria, irked at having lost a prime seat, settled down on the floor and leaned her head against his knee. She was seventeen, only a year younger than me, but as she gazed up at him adoringly, she looked much younger. All of the siblings had brown hair and eyes, making a pretty portrait as they sat together.

Olena scurried about, certain we must be famished, and finally settled down when we assured her we were fine. She sat in a chair opposite Dimitri, her hands clasped in her lap as she leaned forward eagerly.

"This is a miracle," she said in accented English. "I didn't believe it. When I received the message, I thought it was a mistake. Or a lie." She sighed happily. "But here you are. Alive. The same."

"The same," Dimitri confirmed.

"Was the first story ..." Karolina paused, a small frown crossing her pretty features as she carefully chose her words. "Was the first story a mistake, then? You weren't truly ... truly a Strigoi?"

The word hung in the air for a moment, casting a chill over the warm summer evening. For the space of a heartbeat, I couldn't breathe. I was suddenly far away from here, trapped in a different house with a very different Dimitri. He'd been one of the undead, with chalk-white skin and red-ringed pupils. His strength and speed had far surpassed what he had now, and he'd used those skills to hunt for victims and drink their blood. He'd been terrifying-and had nearly killed me.

A few seconds later, I began to breathe again. That Dimitri was gone. This one-warm, loving, and alive-was here now. Yet, before he answered, Dimitri's dark eyes met mine, and I knew he was thinking of the same things I was. That past was a horrible, difficult thing to shake.

"No," he said. "I was Strigoi. I was one of them. I did ... terrible things." The words were mild, but the tone of his voice spoke legions. The radiant faces of his family turned sober. "I was lost. Beyond hope. Except ... Rose believed in me. Rose never gave up."

"As I predicted."

A new voice rang through the living room, and we all looked up at the woman who had suddenly appeared in the doorway. She was considerably shorter than me but carried the kind of personality that could fill up a room. She was Yeva, Dimitri's grandmother. Small and frail with wispy white hair, she was believed by many around here to be a kind of wisewoman or witch. A different word usually came to my mind when I thought of Yeva, though it did sound a lot like "witch."

"You did not," I said, unable to stop myself. "All you did was tell me to get out of here so that I could 'do something else.' "

"Exactly," she said, a smug smile on her wrinkled face. "You needed to go restore my Dimka." She made her way across the living room, but Dimitri met her in the middle. He carefully wrapped her in his arms and murmured what I think was Russian for "grandmother." The insane difference in their heights made it kind of a comical scene.

"But you never said that's what I was going to do," I argued, once she was seated in a rocking chair. I knew I should just drop this subject, but something about Yeva always rubbed me the wrong away. "You can't take credit for that."

"I knew," she said adamantly. Her dark eyes seemed to bore right through me.

"Then why didn't you tell me that's what I had to do?" I demanded.

Yeva considered her answer for a moment. "Too easy. You needed to work for it."

Chapter 2

I felt my jaw start to drop. Across the room, Dimitri caught my eye. Don't do it, Rose, his look seemed to say. Let it go. There was a glint of amusement on his face, as well as something that reminded me of our old teacher-student days. He knew me too well. He knew if given half a chance, I would totally battle this out with his ancient grandmother. Likely I would lose. With a quick nod, I clamped my mouth shut. Okay, witch, I thought. You win this one. Yeva shot me a gap-toothed grin.