Chapitre III

A/N: Yes, I'm aware that Christmas occurs on 7 January in the Orthodox calendar and that ordinarily, Dimitri and Anya wouldn't celebrate on 25 December...but new life, new rules. I'm thinking I'll continue this in a seperate fic... Thanks to all who have reviewed (and for your patience)! --Welshrose

Christmas Day, 1926.

Dimitri rolled over in bed during what must have been very early the next morning, as the sun wasn't even shining yet. He was relived to see Anya fast sleep, still on her side in the position in which they had lain together the previous night. As much as Dimitri wanted to curl up next to his wife and fall back to sleep, he had some work to do still. Without even bothering to change out of his pyjamas, he crept as silently as he could downstairs to the kitchen and removed a small parcel wrapped in brown paper from under a pile of cleaning rags in a table drawer. He turned to the reception room where the Christmas tree stood. It was a sad looking little tree and was sparsely decorated with bits of silver tinsel and only five ornaments, the most the couple could afford. He considered placing the parcel under the tree as the space underneath reserved for presents was empty, but decided to instead store it in his nightstand's drawer, crept back upstairs into bed and embraced his wife. She sighed contentedly in her sleep and Dimitri fell back into dream land.

He was nine years old. Snow was falling outside the Winter Palace, landing in large clumps on the windowsills. Dimitri peered around a corner of the palace wall. He had sneaked up from the kitchens, making his way through the labyrinth of corridors, until he found her. He had heard her laughter, much like the tinkling of bells, outside the door and could see shadows of swirling skirts underneath the door. He peered in through a slit between the door and the doorframe and could see her ginger ringlets gleaming in the lamplight. The seven year-old looked angelic in a white lawn frock identical to those of her sisters, a toothy grin spread across her face and her blue eyes piercing, as though staring right at him. Suddenly, smoke began to trail above the beautiful little princess like a sort of strange halo and in an instant, she burst into a spark of orange and red flame, slowly fading into ash and cinder, gone forever.

Dimitri sprung into consciousness with a start, his heart pounding furiously and breathing heavily. Anya groggily stirred and sat up; a look of concern crossed her face upon seeing the emotional state her lover was in. "What's wrong?" she asked, her blue eyes flicking left and right, searching for an answer in his stricken expression. "Nothing," he breathed, trying hard to calm down. He flopped back down on the pillows and Anya laid her head on his chest, her ear pressed against his heart. Her arm across his chest, she gently rubbed her thumb against his shoulder in what was meant to be a comforting gesture. "I just thought I'd lost you," said Dimitri after a brief pause. Anya had assumed he had been dreaming anyway. Sometimes she still had nightmares about her past, mainly snippets of events she could only assume were of time she spent with her family. She was once convinced she was sitting on her father's lap and heard her father's voice calling her "Malenkaya"--she even swore she felt the scratch of his facial hair on her cheek upon awakening. The two of them lay there silently for a few minutes, their steady breathing the only sound in the room.

Suddenly, Dimitri leaned over, opened the nightstand drawer and pulled out the parcel. Anya looked curiously at the parcel for a moment and then her eyes grew wide. Then, she leaned over her side of the bed and retrieved an identical brown paper parcel from her nightstand drawer. Smiling impishly at each other, the couple exchanged gifts. Both hesitated for a moment, then each began carefully unwrapping his and her respective present. Dimitri was first to finish and grinned at the book he held in his hands, a Russian-French dictionary--for children. He flipped the book open and slowly read the inscription scrawled on the frontispiece: "X-mas 1926…because, you know, men are such babies. Love, Anya". She had seen the book among a pile of used ones going for a cheap rate a few months ago and decided to pick it up for him, hoping the book's relative simplicity would be enough incentive for him to begin learning to read. She realised the hard way he didn't know how to read very well when he could barely find where to sign his own name on their wedding licence but he was too stubborn to admit the fact. Anya caught him feigning reading the newspaper one morning and gently needled him into admitting his illiteracy, albeit grudgingly from him. She made several attempts at trying to teach him--even bribing him with sex at one particularly frustrating moment. "Sex first, lesson later," he argued and, of course, she gave in. Naturally, no reading lesson had taken place that day. "I figured you could use it," she said. "Where's the French word for 'sex'?" he asked gleefully, flipping through the pages. "How about 'thank you'? And anyway, that's a children's book," she countered, and he leaned over to kiss her. "Merci," he whispered softly. "Your turn," he told her, and she slowly unwrapped the parcel.

She stared at the three worn volumes in her hands, a rush of memories coming back to her. She knew these books. One was about a King Charles spaniel, much like her brother Alexei once had, the other about a rabbit who escapes from his pen to have an adventure in the countryside, and the last one, a folk tale called, "Little Snow Girl". The cover was decorated with a relief of snowdrops, the dainty white flowers looked so real she could have picked them up. She looked through the book, gingerly flipping through the yellowed pages, and just before snapping the book shut, something caught her eye. She recognised the handwriting--her father's neat Cyrillic prose: "Happy Christmas, Malenkaya. 1915." Their last Christmas together as a family. Anya quietly closed the book. Dimitri had been watching his wife's reaction the entire time and anxiously waited for her to say something. Anya simply leaned over and kissed Dimitri, trying to convey her thanks in that moment, for she knew that words could never express her gratitude. She pulled away slowly and met his gaze. He grinned at her. "Would you like some breakfast?" She returned his smirk. "You cook?" she asked, with a raised eyebrow. "Only for you, babe."