A/N: Thanks to all my readers for your infinite patience! I don't take it lightly, believe me. A special thanks as well to everyone who left a review - you guys are amazing, the fuel that keeps me at this when life makes me want to quit. Thanks so much for all the luv!
"Dimitri," Vladimir said, his voice reasonable even as the corners of his eyes crinkled with suppressed amusement, "you would trip less if you did not stare so much."
Scowling in response, Dimitri recovered quickly from his most recent stumble over something in his path hidden by snow. He paused, leaning down to knock a clod of dirt off the toe of his wet shoe with as much dignity as he could muster.
"Vlad, worry about yourself," he replied lamely, annoyed with himself for not being able to look anywhere but at Anya up ahead and even more irritated with Vladimir for noticing.
Vladimir grunted as he heaved his suitcase from one numb hand to the other. "I see. Perhaps I was mistaken. Again."
When Dimitri looked his way, the knowing look on Vladimir's face suggested he was certain he wasn't mistaken at all.
Dimitri rolled his eyes and quickened his pace, ignoring Vladimir's smug smile.
The cold breeze at their backs since they began their trek had turned harsh and bitter with the sun's descent, now blasting out of the north in frosty squalls that blew snow into the crevices of Dimitri's clothes. Shivering, he continued to watch Anya march through snowbank after snowbank, always yards ahead of them, his resentment the only thing keeping him warm enough to keep going.
Dimitri gave up trying to talk to her an hour ago. Once she had finished gloating, she refused to respond to anything he said or did to get some response out of her, defiantly maintaining a breakneck pace that kept her so far ahead Dimitri would have had to yell to be heard. So he fell back, stewing in his general displeasure with the entire situation.
The effort it was taking to keep his arms tucked tightly against his body to conserve heat made the muscles in his back and shoulders ache. Every time he cupped his gloved hands and blew into the empty space, the hot air went cold the instant it left his mouth. Dimitri and his breathless companion continued to trudge along the train tracks, skirting the edge of a black wilderness, both struggling with suitcases heavy with the remnants of St. Petersburg - every step a new soggy, freezing misery.
God only knew where they were going; with no map and a twilight sky thick with low, sooty clouds bearing down upon them, Dimitri was guessing at best. The only thing keeping him from doing an about-face and running straight back to the city was the insurance he kept hidden in his coat's breast pocket.
Once again, Dimitri gave into the compulsion to let his fingertips graze the nubbed surface of the Romanov jewelry box nestled against his chest. He never trusted its safety to a suitcase; its importance - to their grand plan, to his future - was too great. He never let it out of his sight and never would, not until the day he placed it in the aged hands of the Dowager Empress herself.
A familiar wheezing noise emanating from behind him caught Dimitri's full attention. Instantly concerned, Dimitri turned back and trotted over to Vladimir's side. "You okay?"
Vladimir, obstinate even as he doubled over, waved him off. "I am fine...just...tired..." Then a brutal coughing fit began that made Dimitri's own chest burn with sympathy. He forced Vladimir to take a seat atop one of the suitcases to rest.
"Dimitri," Vladimir grumbled as his chest rattled, "I am fine -"
"Fine my ass." That cough was as familiar to Dimitri as his own heartbeat. Vladimir was pushing it, and if he didn't stop and take it easy, things could get dangerous for him.
Dimitri narrowed his eyes at Vladimir's bravado and stood nearby until the coughing subsided, his fists on his hips. The sun had nearly disappeared from view over the tips of the trees. The darkness around them now seemed mere shades from absolute, as if the inky spaces between the foliage at the treeline were oozing ever forward, tracking them like prey.
Dimitri hated the dark. Horrible things happened in such an environment. Grotesque revelations could lurk there, waiting to be unearthed by the light of day.
Squeezing his eyes closed, Dimitri groaned and willed away the wave of nausea and the mental image that had triggered it. There it was again, the stress that nearly always unleashed the memories he tried so desperately to bury. Since he'd met Anya, there had been a constant stream of it.
When Dimitri opened his eyes and looked to where he'd last seen her, he stopped breathing.
He couldn't see Anya at all.
Dimitri took off running without another thought.
The only sound that answered him was the staccato crunch of ice beneath his shoes and the distant howls of predators awakening to feed.
Pooka's bark gave her away and Dimitri stopped, his momentum briefly causing him to lose his balance. He chose not to focus on the fact that the relief replacing his momentary panic was so strong it made him lightheaded.
"Anya?" He squinted hard, willing his pupils to dilate further; he could make out a faint, slim silhouette, but nothing more.
"What?" If anything, she sounded perturbed, like he was interrupting something important. She stood close by, but not close enough for Dimitri to reach out and touch her. Not that he wanted to.
Dimitri bristled. "What do you mean, 'what'? What the hell are you doing? I practically had to run a mile just to catch up to you."
He supposed she sighed but it sounded more like a groan. "How is it my fault if you can't keep up? I don't have time to tiptoe along the tracks like you two."
Dimitri instantly went from being concerned for her safety to wanting to strangle her. What was wrong with her? What woman wanted to tramp around in the icy dark alone, without a map?
He growled when he said, "You're out of your mind."
"What did you want, Dimitri?" she snapped. "If you came down here just to annoy me, you'd better go back where you came from." But Dimitri thought he could hear her teeth chattering.
He sighed. "You need to come back. It's not safe for you to be wandering around out here alone this far head."
"I can take care of myself. Besides, I'm still not speaking to you - "
"Anya, don't be stupid. There's wolves and bears and all kinds of dangerous animals out here and it's freezing cold. We need to stay together."
"I have to keep moving...I can't afford to stop, not now."
Dimitri felt a twinge in his chest when he caught the hint of desperation in her words. "Look, Vlad's in a bad way. He has this...this issue with his chest...anyway, we really should stop for the night. Aside from that, you're a flesh and blood human being, Anya. You are capable of freezing to death or dropping dead from exhaustion or being eaten alive. Then you'll never see Paris. Is that what you want?"
When she didn't respond, Dimitri half-laughed, "That question was rhetorical."
After a moment, Anya exhaled long and hard and a childlike quality crept into her voice. "Is Vlad okay?"
"He will be." Not for the first time, Dimitri was surprised by how quickly a kinship seemed to have been forged between Anya and Vladimir. He knew Vladimir was the only reason Anya wasn't putting up a real fight with Dimitri now.
Another minute passed. Anya said nothing, as if she was still considering walking through the night until she collapsed.
"What?" Dimitri had been distracted for a second, straining to hear any danger that might be prowling nearby.
"I'll come back with you."
"Good. Follow me." He turned to go back to Vladimir.
"Wait - where are you? I can barely see...it's dark as hell out here."
"Here." Dimitri stuck his hand out into empty space.
"Right here." He could hear her light footsteps getting louder as she approached him. "Can you see my hand?"
"Yeah, I think so -"
Anya broke off, but Dimitri didn't have to wonder why. His own brain activity had ceased at the same moment, when her fingertips reached out and brushed the tips of his gloves, the hot spark that shot through his body comically at odds with their environment.
So it hadn't been a fluke, an after effect of the alcohol coursing through his blood during their encounter at the bar on the train. There was no way Dimitri could deny feeling something between them now. He couldn't speak then if he wanted to, especially when Anya closed her trembling hand around his fingers and murmured through clenched teeth, "God, your hand is so warm."
He coughed, shaking himself. "What-what happened to your gloves?"
"I must have left them on the train." She sniffled. "It's not like I had time to get myself together before you pushed me out of the damn thing."
Dimitri had to smile to himself, grateful that Anya couldn't make out his face. Even in the midst of their exchange in the dark, he could tell from her sassy tone she was still angry. He had no doubt if she saw his expression she'd think he was making fun and he would be ducking her fist again.
His smile widened. She had actually been ready to fight him, skid row style, like she'd won a bet and planned to beat her payment out of him. It would be no contest, of course - especially since Dimitri would never hurt a female - but he had to admit he appreciated a girl with such a fiery disposition.
That still didn't mean he could tolerate her, let alone like her. At all.
That was also, well...ridiculous.
Dimitri quickly extracted his hand and tugged off his gloves, knowing Anya would somehow make him regret what he was about to do.
"What are you doing?" she demanded when he grabbed her wrist and slapped them into her palm.
"Take them." His decision was not about making Anya comfortable. Dimitri couldn't have her meeting the royal family with frostbitten hands. Absolute necessity was the only reason he would make himself suffer.
She moved to push them back into his hands. "I'm fine. You don't have to -"
"I know I don't," Dimitri said, insistent. "But I'm giving them to you, so take them."
Still, Anya protested. "I don't need your charity - "
"- Hey, do you hear that sound?" Dimitri asked suddenly.
"Hear what?" Anya asked, her words ringing with instant alarm. She hopped closer to him. "What do you hear?"
"That's the sound of the end of this conversation, Your Highness, so put on the gloves, shut your mouth and follow me back."
He could hear Anya shuffling her feet before she said, "Just don't go too fast, okay?"
Dimitri turned his back to her and said, "Put your hands on my shoulders."
"Do I have to?"
He waited for Anya to find him in the darkness. After a moment, he felt her swatting at the back of his coat. "Higher, Anya."
Her hands patted their way to their target then rested lightly, uncomfortably on his shoulders. Anya cleared her throat as if it pained her to do it. "Okay, go."
Dimitri led her back the way he'd come. Anya stumbled, just like he had, each time obliterating the respectable distance she tried to keep between their bodies.
By the time they reached their luggage, Dimitri had forgotten the cold altogether.