BOOM, BABY! I'm back, guys! SURPRISE! Omg, has it really been over a year? I promise, I would not have left you hanging for so long without a good reason - took a break to deal with my writer's block then ended up moving across the continent again, suffered a disc injury in my back from the lifting, couldn't walk for months, developed a huge blood clot and almost died (okay, maybe a bit of an exaggeration, but it was hella scary) - but I'm much better now and ALIVE and back with new goodies at long last! I hope you enjoy it! We'll finish this yet, and thanks for hanging in there with me - my love for y'all knows no bounds.
Quick French translation:
tartines - slice of baguette or toast with a sweet or savory topping
cafe au lait - coffee with milk
chocolat chaud - hot chocolate
Butterflies the color of rust fluttered as far as Anya could see in a gentle horde, moving as one all around her, their powdery wings rustling in her ears. All at once they stilled and drifted down to lay flat on the ground, transforming the infinite hills of the countryside to a blanket of bronzed leaves.
Anya smiled as she lay on her back, strangely peaceful despite her usual phobia for the insects, content to allow the rays of an unseen sun to warm her cheeks.
A spindly boy wearing gray striped beach pajamas appeared on the sun-drenched path nearby and beckoned with a huge smile. Three butterflies, all larger than his hands, hovered around him as if drawn by his sweetness.
Anya was drawn to him as well. Running her fingers through grass soft as fine cashmere, she rose from her hilltop perch in the shadow of a distant palace to greet him.
She knew him, this boy, though she wasn't sure how. Perhaps it was his blue eyes, or the familiar way he scrambled up the rocky escarpment ahead of her, scattering pebbles across her bare toes that curiously never scraped or bruised. Anya felt nothing but warmth and an immeasurable lightness, as if she had consumed a star that made her glow from within and buoyed her feet above the ground. She could have been scaling clouds as she followed the laughing boy and his butterflies with abandon, picking flowers and skipping after him once they emerged onto a wide dirt path.
Fields of wild lavender and wisteria seemed to tremble with joy at their passing, further perfuming the sweet air. Anya sniffed at her own flower, giggling at the sight of three waving young women wearing smiles even larger than the boy's. As he ran up the length of a large log to meet them, their doll-like features belied their mischievous intent when they spun and jumped off the log with screeches of delight.
Anya's heart glowed brighter. She had to know them, too. How else could their antics have been so endearingly expected? How else could she love three strangers so much?
And they had gestured for her to follow, hadn't they? Anya wanted desperately to join them, but balancing on the log proved a more difficult task than it should have been; her body kept wanting to fall backward instead. It took several attempts to reach what she discovered to be a deep, shimmering water hole, clean as pure rain. It was so clear she could see straight to the bottom, to the bare feet of the laughing girls who had gathered around a handsome bearded man beaming brightest of all.
The four of them tread water leisurely, the fabric of their pale swimming garments floating around them like elegant ghosts. The man called out to Anya, his grin a perfect reflection of her own. "Hello, Sunshine!"
Anya greeted him in kind with a shy wave.
He gestured for her to follow just as the boy had, with deep brown eyes that made Anya want to leap right into his arms.
The boy beat her to it. With a whoop he shot past her like a bullet, landing in a cannonball that sent the group in the water sputtering and shrieking with laughter. Anya found it so funny she could hardly stay upright.
Nothing had ever felt more natural. These people...this family...they had to belong to her. She had never felt more sure of anything. She couldn't remember her life before this exquisite moment, and the future had never mattered less than it did right now.
Still smiling, Anya held her breath and lifted a foot to step off the edge.
It had the quality of ice cubes down her back, the echo of her name on a breeze. Dismayed, she glanced over her shoulder with a scowl, seeing and hearing no one, knowing it was impossible for someone to have called out to her here...
Fear speared through her as she turned back to the swimming hole. The butterflies and family had vanished, and the warmth and kindness of the handsome man had been replaced by the horror of Ivan's yellowed, lecherous smile.
"JUMP, PRETTY GIRL!"
Anya suddenly found herself amidst a sea of giant Ivans with the fleshy wings of bats and legs as tall as buildings. Drowning in his stench, she scrabbled to keep purchase on stone that had changed into a bottomless pile of human skulls.
Smaller Ivan creatures flew down in front and behind her, the beating of their disgusting wings a roar that filled her head. "Pretty girl" they sang over and over, their claws tearing at her arms and legs and belly, pulling her swimming suit and flesh away from her bones like wet paper.
Though a tormented howl rose from the pit of her soul, the sound remained trapped inside, reverberating through her body like the peal of a bell. Anya kicked and swung with her arms like a wild thing, but now she was sinking, moving in slow motion, her limbs ineffective and useless, entombed within a roiling sea of Ivans, unable to see, unable to breathe, ready to die, and then -
"Anya, WAKE UP!"
Anya shivered anew.
Gunning for the first exit in sight like the devil himself was on her heels had been her only option. With both hands she'd slammed the door behind her with a deafening clank and held it there, not daring to move, as if she could keep out the remnants of the storm and the mayhem that had come with it.
That could have been hours ago, for all she knew. Probably was. She'd lost track of when she'd last felt sensation in her legs as she squatted on her heels in a corner of a utility closet, quaking with the wet chill. The darkness made the small space feel like a crypt - a far cry from the warm, comfy crawlspace at the orphanage she'd have sought out in a time of crisis.
It didn't matter where Anya ran to now. There could be no hiding. Not after that. She couldn't have felt more exposed if Dimitri had ripped her bedclothes off, the way she had practically begged him to.
She cringed and hid her face in her hands.
Her pulse may have finally slowed to a steady whir, but the hollow drip from the pipes all around her had yet to drown out the tumult inside her mind.
She'd been doing so well before that first night aboard the ship. Dimitri's brusque post-waltz dismissal had given her the fortitude to begin rebuilding the wall around her heart. Spending her waking hours with Vladimir, with his entertaining her for hours on end with tall tales of his glory days, made it easier for Anya to ignore Dimitri altogether. Especially once she realized he'd stooped to faking illness to avoid her.
Then her nightmares had returned with a new potency that undermined her resolve. They ripped through her subconscious with a vengeance, dredging up not only the terror of that Latvian kitchen but of faceless screams and gunfire and blood. The images would recede once she opened her eyes each morning, but she could still see them between blinks, like the aftermath of staring at a bright light.
Neither could she forget the way Dimitri would appear at her side every night like a miracle the moment she thought she'd met her end - his hands firm and strong on her trembling shoulders, holding her steady, guiding her back to safety, slaying the demons that had grown too strong for her to fight on her own. When he'd tuck her back into bed like a child, Anya would clutch him like a lifeline until she tumbled back into unconsciousness, into that black void where even nightmares couldn't reach.
Her need for Dimitri had only grown, surpassing the torment of the most desperate hunger pangs she'd ever felt.
By tonight, she had been starving for him. And Dimitri had materialized before her once again, pulling her back from the edge of destruction and literally saving her life - only to taunt her with her own ravenous desire.
Anya held her hands in front of her face, glad the darkness shrouded their incessant shaking.
How had she become so goddamned weak? When? Her orphanage hiding place was supposed to be mere nostalgia, relegated to the frightened child she had been, the same who'd had no need for it in the decade since refusing to run from anything or anyone ever again. And she hadn't. Until Dimitri.
Now it seemed Anya was always running. Either with him or to him, after him or from him. It made her sick to her stomach.
She recalled her actions from the day they met and didn't recognize herself in the reflection of her memory. The mere expression on Dimitri's face dictated her every mood. His frown meant her world was ending and she couldn't function until she'd made him smile. He was the source of every impure thought that plagued her and the trigger for her body's violent, traitorous reactions.
Never had she been so impulsive and needy. Dependent. Pathetic.
Worse yet, Dimitri's nighttime gallantry may as well have been committed by a kind stranger. Anya couldn't comprehend it. During the day he was another man, more withdrawn than he had been in the forest after Ivan. He hardly spoke to her or looked at her, only lay on his pallet and stared at the wall at night until he fell asleep.
Did he give a damn about her or not?
That she even had to wonder at this stage of their journey was an insult in itself. Since he couldn't give her the time of day when she was awake and lucid, Dimitri clearly didn't deserve anything Anya had to give.
She wished like hell she could let him have his way and leave him be, for good. And she despised herself because she couldn't. She couldn't not care.
No matter how she battled against it - and she resisted mightily - Anya both loved and needed to hate Dimitri a little more fiercely every day. He'd become a living, breathing reminder of her weakness.
Maybe he was her weakness.
At the moment, Anya felt so physically drained she staggered to her feet. Her burning soles scraped raw by the rough planks of the deck, she winced as she hobbled to the door on numb legs and cracked it open to peek outside.
Ribbons of pink and coral light played across the deck. Dawn already, or just past. Anya spotted a uniformed crew member here and there, coiling thick rope or checking the crates of supplies along the gangway wall for storm damage, but no passengers. Specifically, no Dimitri.
Anya released the breath trapped in her chest. She was in no state to see him right now, physically or otherwise. Though she was a little disappointed not to find him asleep right outside the door, waiting for her.
She frowned toward her left and right, discovering she couldn't remember how she got to this part of the ship let alone recall how to get back to the stateroom. And she couldn't exactly stop and ask a deck hand in wet pajamas that may has well have been made of cellophane.
Biting her lip, Anya waited for a husky man with a burlap sack slung across his shoulders to lumber by before darting out of the closet and blindly around the corner, praying to everything holy she'd picked the right direction. She wasn't keen on having to saunter past other passengers in her unmentionables.
Everyone else making the trip to Paris must have been still asleep or already at breakfast, as Anya managed to find her way back to the stateroom without running into a soul. A quick press of her ear to the door confirmed Vladimir had kept with his daily ritual of arriving the moment they opened the dining room and had dragged Dimitri and Pooka with him. Thankfully, they'd left the door unlocked.
Anya slipped inside and locked up behind her, lips twitching into a smile at the towel and toiletries stacked neatly on her bunk by one of her roommates.
The smile faded as she dried herself with the towel and peeled off her soggy cotton pants and top, then shimmying into her stockings and dry undergarments. She hoped it hadn't been Dimitri on her bed. Her hands began to tremble again. Anya could feel him on some elemental level now, as if he'd stained the air with his essence, like lingering smoke. She half expected to look up and find him staring at her from across the room.
Wilting onto her bunk, she took solace in her folded arms with a whimper. She could still taste him when she wet her lips. Taste them. The unique, tantalizing combination of sea spray and need, the hallmark of their kiss.
Kiss...Anya shook her head at the absurdity of the term. Kisses were cold, wet pecks behind the woodshed in winter in exchange for extra bread at supper. Kisses were quick and simple, uncomplicated, no more complex than a hot spark in the night that was over in a flash.
Dimitri's mouth had called down hell fire in a thunderstorm, leaving a trail on her wet skin that had left her scorched.
The birds and the bees were old hat for Anya. The dated medical books in the orphanage library had filled in the gaps for whatever she hadn't caught going on in dark corners during her adolescence. She knew what all the kissing and rubbing and touching led to. She just hadn't understood what all the fuss was about until she'd crossed paths with Dimitri.
He had willfully treated her like shit for days and still she had whined and writhed in his arms like a cat in heat. Had burned all over, his every touch and stroke and press of his body against hers stoking the blaze until Anya thought she'd combust, until he was her personal cosmos and everything in it and she would have shamelessly welcomed whatever profane, glorious deed he wanted to do to her.
An animal, that's what she'd been. Totally out of control. As if some fiery beast had burst free from deep inside and Dimitri alone held the key to its cage. Now Anya didn't know whom she was more afraid of - Dimitri or herself. Neither of them could be trusted.
What they'd shared could never be coined an insignificant kiss. It had been a will-stealing, pride-robbing acquisition. Anya knew there was nothing she wouldn't do for him now. She couldn't deny that truth. At least her last shred of pride took over in the final hour, thrusting her anger at Dimitri's fickle behavior to the forefront of her mind so she could physically shove him away.
Shaking her head again to dislodge him from her thoughts, Anya jumped up and stalked across the room to hang up her nightclothes to dry and slide on her boots and blue dress, a bittersweet affair. Every stitch spoke of Dimitri, of how very naked they had been together despite the layers of fabric between them.
She had half a mind to wriggle through that damn porthole and dive into the ocean, intentionally this time, just to get free.
Anya turned to brave the woman in the mirror, hoping the chaotic nature of her disposition didn't reflect in her appearance.
She wrinkled her nose. Her damp hair was a lost cause. She raked her fingers through the tangles and quickly wound it up into a tight chignon at the base of her neck, hoping it would dry with enough wave to be passable. At least her dress was still free of wrinkles, and someone had cleaned her boots as well. She chose not to dwell that.
Sharp eyes drifted over every inch of her reflection as Anya tried to think of anything requiring adjustment or repair, a reason to stay in the room and never have to leave. But she came up empty.
She took a deep breath and called upon her remnants of inner strength. Better to get it over with.
After snatching a yellow ribbon from her things, Anya locked up again and tucked the key with the now folded ribbon into the belt around her waist, then forced her legs into a fast clip down the stairs before she lost her nerve.
The scent of coffee and buttery pastries assaulted her as she pushed open the solid wood door to the dining room, a large, open space filled with square tables dressed in simple white linen and flooded with clean morning sunlight. Anya's stomach was wound too tight to even rumble.
Smiling travelers occupied nearly every available chair, dining on traditional French breakfast fare of tartines with fresh butter, blackberry jam, cafe au lait and chocolat chaud. The silken French tongue dominated the myriad conversations, most of them punctuated with hearty laughter.
Anya's familiar ear picked up the Russian being spoken at a table in the back corner near a window, where Dimitri sat across from Vladimir, sipping from a tiny cup with his back to the front of the room.
Swallowing hard, Anya put some steel in her spine and raised her chin. Her knees may have been knocking, but she'd be damned if she let Dimitri or anyone else know just how much last night had shaken her to her foundation.
She breezed up to their table as if she were wearing a gown at a fancy soiree, a counterfeit smile tacked to her face. "Gentlemen, good morning!" She leaned down and lightly kissed a surprised Vladimir on both cheeks, considerably smoother after a fresh trim.
"Good morning, Your Highness," he said with a chuckle, peering at her over his glasses as he stood to pull out the chair to his right, catercorner to Dimitri. "It is rare to see you in such excellent spirits so early in the day."
"And why wouldn't I be?" Anya chirped as he returned to his seat. She bent to scratch Pooka behind the ears when he curled up next to her ankle under the table. "It's a beautiful morning."
As Anya glanced out at the tranquil ocean beyond the glass with mock appreciation, Dimitri's gaze bore down on her as distinctly as a full frontal assault. Her tenacity faltered when she turned to face him.
"Good morning, Dimitri." Anya's smile grew strained and it was a battle in itself to hold it in place. "I trust you slept well." Delicately clearing her throat, she reached for a baguette from the wicker basket on the table and dropped it on the small plate in front of her.
"Good morning, Your Grace." Dimitri carefully placed his cup on its saucer and regarded her warily, as if she were a rabid dog he was afraid of provoking to attack. Lucky for him, Anya was in no mood to bark or bite. She still felt too raw to look his way for long.
Why had she thought she was ready for this? Her cheeks felt like they were sizzling.
She should have just stayed in the room and let them bury her at sea.
"How are you?" Dimitri probed for chinks in her rusted armor with a loaded question.
Her hands shook in her lap. She clasped them together and tucked them within the folds of her dress. "Ah, fine. Could you pass the jam, please?"
Vladimir, who had been pouring Anya her own cup of coffee, gave them both an odd look but remained characteristically mute.
Dimitri slowly pushed the jam pot her direction. Anya studied the wrinkles it made in the tablecloth. "Are you sure you're -"
"I said I was fine." Her voice cracked and she had to clear her throat again. "Thank you." She reached for the jam with the very tips of her fingers to minimize the risk of skin to skin contact. God knew she couldn't handle that right now.
Dimitri's long fingers held it fast. "You clearly have something on your mind."
Anya examined the splotch of spilled coffee near his cup. When she spoke again, it came out as an embarrassing squeak. "Just breakfast."
Dimitri shifted and Anya could sense him leaning toward her. "We should talk. About...about what should happen today." A thick vein stood out of his neck and there was a strain in his words Anya's had never heard before, like simply speaking to her was painful.
They both still held on to the jam pot.
Anya really didn't want to do this. Her eyes finally flipped up in a hard glare. "Dimitri, let it go." And she did mean of everything.
His eyes did just the opposite.
"Anya, may I speak to you outside for a moment, please?"
"No need. Just pass the jam." She tugged a bit on the small ceramic pot again. Dimitri didn't give an inch, only set his mouth in a hard line.
"Dimitri, give me the damn jam." It took a tremendous amount of strength to keep her voice at an acceptable level. He was playing with fire here, though Anya had to admit it was much easier feeling irate than whatever it was that took hold of her last night.
She tried to scream "no" at him with her eyes alone. Dimitri just stared back.
Vladimir broke their silent tête-à-tête with a cough. "Is there something I should know -"
"NO!" Dimitri and Anya snapped at Vladimir in unison and startled everyone at the table.
Anya flushed cardinal red. If she didn't give in to Dimitri now, he'd have no issue with causing a scene in front of all the fancy French people surrounding them.
Sensing her reluctant consent he stood, never breaking eye contact.
Anya gave up. "Fine. I need some air anyway."
Dimitri was eerily quiet as he rounded the table to help her out of her seat and escort her to the side door, the tips of his fingers grazing the small of her back.
Anya swatted his hand away and stalked ahead of Dimitri the instant the door closed, arms crossed against the cool breeze whipping across the deck. The sound of his footsteps echoing her own filled her with a nauseating brew of dread and rage. Once she was sure they were out of earshot, Anya turned on Dimitri to let him have it.
"Anya, I'm sorry."
His hasty apology aborted the barrage of curses Anya had been ready to send flying. Her lips parted to respond - heaven only knew what she had planned to say now - but Dimitri silenced her with a solemn head shake.
"No, listen - let me say this. I was wrong. Dead wrong. What happened last night never, ever should have happened, especially since you..." He trailed off, looking utterly repulsed. "I was only trying to help and took it somewhere I shouldn't have, and I sincerely apologize."
Was he disgusted with her? How much worse could this get?
Shoving his fists into his pockets, he continued. "That was on me, okay? You didn't do anything wrong." Not once did he look up from the wet planks at their feet. "I respect you, and I will never take any liberties like that again. You have my word."
Mute, Anya stared until he finally met her eyes with a distinct ruddiness to his cheeks. So he didn't want to talk about the nightmares. Fine by her; she'd just as soon forget. But if he was in a talking mood, she was going to get some answers out of him. It pissed her off all over again that it seemed he felt guilt for what he did, not due to some elaborate manipulation, but because she was some kind of damaged doll he felt pity for. "I know I didn't do anything wrong, Dimitri. I don't need you to tell me that."
Her terse statement threw him, made him stumble over his next words. "I-I know, I just didn't...I didn't want you to think -"
"Think what? That you wanted to kiss me?" Anya asked in as pragmatic a fashion as she could, eyebrows raised. If she could minimize their interlude herself and get him on board, perhaps they could put the entire messy business behind them.
The color drained from Dimitri's face. "What? I don't know what you're talking -"
His face contorted with disbelief at the turn of their conversation, and Anya reveled in having the upper hand for once. She stepped closer.
"Did I what?" His voice had become a throaty whisper.
"Did you want to kiss me?"
"I..." Dimitri erupted with a ragged sigh and he looked out in the distance at length, fingers clawing his hair away from his face. His dusky eyes burned when they returned to her and Anya had to gird herself against their heat. "Maybe I had some...thoughts."
Anya's heartbeat went from zero to a hundred in a second flat. Only sheer will kept her from launching herself at him. She barely managed to keep her face composed. "Fine. So if you wanted to kiss me, do you honestly think last night would have happened if I hadn't wanted it to?"
"What are you saying?"
Anya started to pace, throbbing in too many places to keep still. "I'm saying it's normal. We spend a lot of time together...it was bound to happen. But don't read too much into it." She wished she could heed her own advice.
Dimitri paused for a beat, and then: "Okay."
Anya stopped pacing and pinned him with a black look, hands on her hips. "What's not normal, however, is how you've been ignoring me all this time when..." She hesitated, not wanting to reveal too much. "When I...need your help the most." Crossing her arms again, she added, "Especially since you supposedly 'respect' me so much."
"You're right." As Dimitri rocked back on his heels like a little boy receiving a scolding, Anya commanded her heart not to warm at the sight. "Anya...I didn't know what to do, and I handled it badly. I'm sorry about that, too."
Anya broke the ensuing silence first, unable to bear the tremendous weight of all that remained unsaid between them, but moved by his sincerity. "Well, well... two apologies in one day. This has to be some kind of record." She'd said it to be mean, but she couldn't resist the tiny smile toying with her lips.
Dimitri noticed as he look up through his long lashes and treated her to the trademarked smirk she hadn't seen in days. "I wouldn't get used to it...but does that mean I'm forgiven? Are we friends again?"
Biting her lip, Anya glanced at a seagull swooping low overhead to keep her grin in check. The yo-yo effect the man had on her emotions was making her dizzy. She answered him with narrowed eyes. "I thought we were 'amicable acquaintances'."
He barked an incredulous laugh at her throwing his own words from the pub in Latvia - before all the madness - back in his face. Anya's blood sang at the sound of it.
"Same difference." He shook his head, still chuckling.
Anya let out a long, slow breath, feeling so much of the tension over the past week seep away. "In any case, that's twice now that you've saved me. So, thank you. I mean it."
Cheeks flushed once more, Dimitri inclined his head. "I'd do it again in a heartbeat."
"I'll do my best to steer clear of sticky situations from here on out."
Laughing again, Dimitri placed a hand on his chest and said, "Both myself and my poor heart thank you."
"You're welcome." Anya grinned.
Each watched the each other until Dimitri's voice ended the hushed moment this time, much more at ease than it was at the beginning of their exchange. "Come on, let's eat some breakfast before we have to disembark. You know you want a whole baguette."
Anya snorted, still dazed with relief, and let him usher her back toward the door to the dining room. This time she let the fingers that again found the small of her back linger there, enjoying the secret shivers they produced. "Are you kidding? I was planning on eating yours, too."
Dimitri's head fell back with a hearty guffaw as she passed through the door in front of him.