Dimitri practically ran the short distance to the theater, his cheeks barely cooled by the time he met Vladimir on the grand stone steps as the sun slipped behind the building. He found his partner more red-faced than he and pacing up a storm.
"Anya's coming," Dimitri said as he seated himself on the steps behind Vladimir, who acknowledged him with a brief hand in the air without slowing his feet. Dimitri tried to get comfortable, throwing his coat over his knee and staring out into the distant lights of the city. All he could see was Anya's naked backside in his mind. It was as perfect as he'd imagined...
Vladimir's wheezing caught his attention. "You alright?"
Vladimir nodded. "Just...having trouble breathing. Probably anxiety..." He started coughing hard enough to rattle bones. Dimitri jumped up and guided him to a seat on the steps, a hand on his back. He had never seen him quite so bad off.
"Listen, we don't have anything to be nervous about," Dimitri said. "She's the princess."
When the fit subsided, Vladimir waved Dimitri off. "I know, I know but - "
"No, no you don't know," Dimitri said, straightening. If the truth could calm Vladimir enough to avoid a hospital visit tonight, so be it. "I was the boy, in the palace. The one who opened the wall. She's the real thing, Vlad."
Vladimir's eyes bugged out of his head. "What? You were...?" He looked at Dimitri as if he were a stranger for a long time. "That was true? And you never told me?"
"I've never told anyone. That's how I'm sure." Vladimir had never told Dimitri about his daughter either, but he wasn't going to throw that in his face.
Vladimir stared off into the distance, his jaw slack as he slowly shook his head. "That means our Anya has found her family." He tried to get up and Dimitri grabbed his elbow to help. "We have actually found the heir to the Russian throne." His voice changed when he met Dimitri's eyes, true understanding turning his own dark with sympathy. "And you - "
"Will walk out of her life forever," Dimitri finished for him, heading down the steps toward Sophie's car which had just pulled up at the curb.
Vladimir followed. "But - "
Dimitri whirled on him with a bittersweet smile. "Come on, Vlad. Princesses don't marry kitchen boys."
"I know, but -"
"We're going to go through with this as if nothing has changed." Dimitri stared Vladimir down, willing him to understand that he was doing this for Anya.
"We cannot take the reward, Dimitri. Not now." Vladimir's low voice had turned gutteral with resolve, though he gripped his top hat in his hands like the decision caused him physical pain.
Dimitri sighed in relief. At least that part of his plan wouldn't lose him his best friend. "I know."
"You've got to tell her."
"Tell me what?"
Dimitri jumped, turning to find Anya standing before him, holding closed a glamorous coat trimmed in white fur that looked like it cost more than all the money he'd ever made. A knowing, naughty smile spread across her face. Dimitri couldn't help but blush, the glimpse of her au naturel perfection forever burned into his mind. "How...how beautiful you look," he said in response, taking her in. With a mere touch of color on her lips and cheeks and diamonds glittering at her ears and throat and in her hair, she was a vision before she had even removed her coat.
She bit her lip and ducked her head. "Well, thank you. You clean up pretty nice yourself. You too, Vlad."
Vladimir acknowledged her with a murmur of thanks, too distracted by Dimitri's exposé to greet her with his usual geniality. Anya didn't notice, eagerly taking the arm Dimitri had offered with a practiced grin to escort her inside the theater.
Vladimir's hand found Dimitri's shoulder as they walked by. He met his gaze and they engaged in a silent argument for a fleeting moment, Vladimir urging him to reveal the truth to Anya and Dimitri vehemently refusing before Sophie's tap on Vladimir's back made him turn away.
Dimitri tore himself away from Anya just long enough to check their coats once they were inside. When he returned, he found her standing halfway up the colossal grand staircase on the landing, her full glory revealed to him for the first time.
Beautiful was not the word. Even exquisite was woefully inadequate, a paltry description for a woman who was clearly a goddess, enrobed in cobalt sky from her bust line to the marble floor with the stars themselves glittering in the fabric of her train. She glowed. Anya was so stunning the thick crowd of Parisians waiting along either side of the stairs and in the lobby all stared and quieted at the sight of her as if she'd stolen all their words.
Oblivious to the attention, Anya slightly raised arms sheathed up to her biceps in white silk gloves and widened her eyes expectantly at Dimitri below her.
Dimitri snapped out of his open-mouthed rapture and trotted up the stairs to join her.
Sophie and Vladimir found them soon after they arrived in the balcony, where everything from floor to ceiling was covered in a rich red velvet. Sophie adjusted her plumed turban and directed them to their assigned area before taking her leave to sit with the Empress in her private box near the stage. The three remaining took their seats, Anya and Vladimir in the front with Vladimir settling in behind them after handing them programs for the night's entertainment.
Dimitri squinted through the tiny gold opera glasses Sophie had left behind, his heart stuttering when he spotted her seated with the Dowager Empress, formidable in her full royal regalia even from this distance. Dimitri's palms began to sweat.
"Look - there she is," he whispered, holding the ornate binoculars up for Anya to see.
Anya took them from his hand and emitted a little gasp when she spotted the imperial matriarch. "Wow..." she breathed. "Dimitri, can you believe it?"
"Of course I can," he said, though he had been tempted to pinch himself since they'd arrived. There had been so many times he didn't think they would make it here.
"Please let her remember me," Dimitri thought he heard Anya mumble in a prayer as the lights dimmed and curtains opened on the stage to dignified applause.
Neither of them saw much of the ballet. Anya studied Empress Marie while Dimitri watched Anya, her restlessness progressing from her twisting her ballet program into a thin paper tube to ripping it into tiny pieces that littered her lap.
Slightly amused, he took her hand to give it something else to do. "It's gonna be fine," he said in her ear, threading her gloved fingers through his own. Anya smiled her thanks and left her hand in his throughout the rest of the first act.
When the lights came up for the intermission, Dimitri swallowed the lump of fear in his throat and helped Anya to a stand. "Come on, I guess it's time."
Their final destination lay down the curved hall on the other side of the opulent theater. Anya never let go of Dimitri's hand, gripping it tighter and tighter the closer they came to the Dowager's door, her whole arm shaking like a leaf. He had to go after her twice when her nerves won out and she tried to run back to their box, where they'd left Vladimir snoring in his chair.
"Hey," Dimitri told her once they stood together in front of the imposing mahogany door, "you're gonna be great." When Anya looked at him like a startled doe, he let his voice get a little commanding. "Say 'yes'."
She flushed suddenly, then smiled a little. "Sure. Fine. Yes."
"Good," Dimitri said with an answering smirk. He took a deep breath and put his game face on. What reason did he have to be nervous? Anya was who she claimed to be, he was sure of it, and what he was about to do - charming little old ladies into giving him what he wanted? He was the fucking best at it. "Wait here just a moment. I'll go in and announce you properly."
He turned to go and felt a tug on his sleeve. "Dimitri."
"You still don't believe me?" He faced her again, brow crinkling.
Anya became atypically flustered, her vague hand gestures as uncertain as she now appeared. "No, I do, I mean - I just -" She sighed hard. "Look, we've been through a lot together..." She paused, her lowered eyes rising like the moon to meet Dimitri's and giving him a fresh heart attack. Shades of that look she'd had, the coquettish one she'd worn with such abandon back in her hotel room, made an encore appearance.
Just what was she trying to say?
Dimitri couldn't wait to find out. He took a larger step than necessary toward her until he stood so close he could smell the sweetness of the spring evening on her skin. An eager grin overtook his face before he could hide it. "Uh-huh..."
"And I just wanted to..."
He was in very real danger of kissing her right then and there if she didn't spit it out. "Yes? Wanted to what?"
"Well...thank you, I guess." All hint of teasing gone, her smile became guileless and sweet. It reminded Dimitri of his dastardly nature with the clarity of a switchblade at his throat and he swallowed, hard. "Yes, thank you for everything."
He should tell her everything. Right now. "Anya, I..."
"Yes?" She blinked at him, hope shining from the depths of her eyes - for what, Dimitri didn't know for sure. But he could guess from the way her teeth caught her lip what she was thinking about.
Would she still want him if she knew the truth?
"I'm...I...um..." Dimitri frowned in frustration at the disconnect between his mouth and brain.
"Yes? What is it?" Anya's eyes widened further in anticipation.
Dimitri opened his mouth, filled his lungs with a heavy breath, felt the words gather on his tongue like splinters.
He sighed. "I wanted to wish you good luck, I guess." He couldn't do it. Part cowardice, part martydom, Dimitri's nerve failed him. It would be easier to let her go in the end if he kept his mouth shut.
"Oh." Her voice softened with disappointment.
Dimitri took her gloved hand and touched his mouth to her knuckles. "Good luck, Anya."
He surpressed a sharp intake of breath when she leaned forward and brushed a feather-light kiss against his cheek, near the corner of his mouth. "Thank you. Again." She smiled.
Clearing his throat, Dimitri tried to collect himself. "Well, here goes."
The Dowager's private balcony came furnished with its own parlor, complete with candlelit wall sconces of gold and paintings from antiquity. Dimitri slipped inside and let the door close behind his back.
Sophie's blue eyes sparkled beneath a heavy layer of dark eyeshadow when she saw him. Her beloved oversized ruffles forming the sleeves of her gown this time, she burst into a grin and gestured for him to meet her at the balcony opening, where a heavy curtain of blood-red velvet was gathered on either side to allow passage into the box. Dimitri's breathing became shallow, but the generous cut of his tuxedo pants hid the trembling of his knees.
"Please inform Her Majesty, The Dowager Empress, that I have found her granddaughter, the Grand Duchess Anastasia. She's waiting to see her just outside the door." His announcement was loud. Meaty. Impossible to ignore.
Sophie hopped a little in what Dimitri assumed was appreciation for his fervor and said with contrived outrage, "I'm very sorry young man, but the Dowager Empress...she will see no one..." and threw in a wink for good measure.
"You may tell that impertinent young man that I have seen enough 'Grand Duchess Anastasias' to last me a lifetime."
Sophie had barely finished her sentence when Dimitri heard the raspy Russian words of pure ice come from the balcony. He'd heard it before, that decisive and forceful tone the royals used with the servants in the palace. He felt like someone had poured cold water down his back.
The Dowager didn't bother with a backward glance. She'd spoken without so much as turning her head, the well-preserved lines of her slender neck and proud shoulders unbroken, not a single silver hair on her head uncoiffed.
Sophie's light dimmed. "Oh, you'd better go." She placed a hand on Dimitri's shoulder. "She's in a mood tonight," she added in a whisper.
Dimitri looked at Sophie like she'd lost her mind. Was she really planning on escorting him out and he hadn't yet had a chance to plead his case? To plead Anya's case? "Please, let me just - "
"If you'll excuse me," said Marie, louder this time, "I wish to live out the remainder of my lonely life in peace."
She was so bitter. Even if Dimitri understood why, it didn't mean her sarcastic condescension didn't piss him off. He choked it down when Sophie closed the curtain between himself and the Dowager and tried to get him to follow her to the door, ducking through the curtain the second Sophie turned her back.
He hadn't expected this to be easy.
He snapped the fabric closed behind him, cautiously approaching the monarch in the near-dark of the quiet theater. "Your Majesty, I intend you no harm." He kept his voice low and as non-threatening as he could manage, sidling between the close-set balcony chairs. "My name is Dimitri...I used to work at the palace."
Marie reared back as if he'd taken a shit in the seat next to her instead of sitting down in it. She jumped up with more grace than he'd expected from a woman her age, slapping the ballet program she'd been holding into her vacated seat. "Well, that's one I haven't heard, I must say."
She began to stride from the balcony in a flourish of voluminous fabric, leaving a soft trail of peppermint scent in her wake. Dimitri stumbled after her over the empty seats in a panic. "Wait, don't go - please!" Dimitri beat her to the curtain and threw his body into her path, arms spread so she would have to physically move him to get by. "If you'll just hear me out -"
"I know what you're after!" the monarch spat, pointing an accusatory finger right in his face. "I've seen it before - men who train young women in the royal ways." She was so unexpectedly forceful Dimitri found himself cowering, just a little, which allowed her enough room sweep past him with a noise of disgust into the parlor.
This was going south, and much faster than he could have anticipated. He followed her, at a respectful distance this time, head bowed slightly as he watched her yank twice on a long velvet rope hanging from the ceiling. He tried another tack. "But if Your Highness would just listen - "
"Haven't you been listening? I've had enough!" She wouldn't let him speak. She would never let him speak, running right over him with her words, her tone...it made Dimitri feel dirty and low and unworthy and nothing in his life made him livid faster than that. She continued, nose upturned in derision and scowl firmly affixed to her royal brow. "I don't care how much you have fashioned this girl to look like her, sound like her or act like her - in the end, it never is her - "
"This time it is her!" Dimitri practically shouted, cutting her off for once. He had already ventured deep into the territory of disrespect; might as well go all in if it could get his point across.
The Dowager's sharp blue eyes narrowed, but not in outrage. In recognition. "Dimitri...I've heard of you."
Dimitri blinked, a hand of ice gripping his heart. "Sire?"
"You're that conman from St. Petersburg who was holding auditions to find an Anastasia look-a-like." Her lip curled. "You must be very good at what you do, to have your reputation proceed you all the way to France."
She saw him. Dimitri had been entirely unprepared for the Dowager Empress, the old woman whom he had planned to utterly deceive for the last ten years, to see straight through his cultivated facade to the inner ugliness he'd been trying to put behind him. If he had offered her a puff of lies, she'd have known it. But he hadn't. He'd come to her, now on his knees before her as she settled herself on the settee, with nothing but the truth for the first time in his life. And she had rejected it.
He didn't bother denying what he'd done. He bowed his head again, placing both hands atop hers in her lap with all the reverence he could muster, knowing he was crossing the line and not caring because Anya needed this. "But Your Grace, we've come all the way from Russia just to see you -"
"And others have come from Timbuktu. You are no different."
"Your Highness, please...it's not that, it's not what you think - "
"How much pain will you inflict on an old woman for money?" Marie stood and raised her hands out of his reach. "Remove him at once!"
Her last words she'd directed over Dimitri's shoulder, and his head turned to find two hulking men in dark suits reaching out to manhandle him to the door. "But she's Anastasia, I'm telling you!" The men were stronger than he'd thought, wrinkling his tuxedo jacket in their bruising grips as they dragged him away from the Dowager, who'd turned her back on the entire scene. Their grunts as they exerted themselves against Dimitri's resistance threatened to drown out his words, so he yelled them louder.
"She's the Grand Duchess...if you only speak to her, you'll see!"
With that, Dimitri was airborne, both feet swept off the ground as the security force picked him up and literally tossed him out of the balcony box, slamming the door behind them. Hair mussed and shirt disheveled and face burning red with humiliation, he landed hard on his side, a lovesick Icharus on lead wings that had never had a real chance of taking flight.
Dimitri had no sooner rolled onto his knees when he noticed the puddle of ink blue silk on the carpet before him, and he had to force the coward in him to look up.
He was on his hands and knees at Anastasia's feet, after all, just as in his nightmare at the palace the night they'd met. And from the look of horrified revulsion on her face, she had heard everything.