It's darkest before dawn, folks. Excuse Anya for getting a little...gangsta. She's been through a lot.

I thought about breaking this chapter up like the others and decided against it, not wanting to disrupt the momentum of Anya's journey that has been building up to this event since Chapter 1. So it's long as hell. Hope you don't mind :)

We're almost at the end, y'all, can you believe it? I'm kinda bummed; this fic has somehow ended up being my life's work XD

Reviews = love and hopefully the last chapter before the holidays (looking at you, Hufflepuff ;))

"You're that conman from St. Petersburg who was holding auditions to find an Anastasia look-a-like."

Her ear to the small gap in the balcony door, Anya's gasp emptied her lungs.

Conman. St. Petersburg.

The moments since the day she went to the palace whizzed through her mind in a whir:

Dimitri's name whispered in Anya's ear by the old woman at the train station like some dirty secret...his living in the ruin of the Old Palace...the way he'd said she looked more like the Grand Duchess than the hundreds of other girls he'd seen before...their escape from the train...the way money just happened to appear with no real explanation...

The whispers, the smiles...

God, his fucking smile. Anya had always felt Dimitri could get what he wanted out of anyone with that grin of his, and she was right. Turned out she was just another dope who'd fallen for it.

On day one he had looked her in the eye and said there was no reward money. A moment ago, when the Dowager had accused him of badgering her for that very reason, he hadn't denied it. Not once.

That meant Dimitri had lied to her since the day they met. Anya understood they were strangers at the beginning and neither of them had any real reason to trust the other at the time, but Dimitri had had countless opportunities to tell her to truth once they knew each other better, and he hadn't. Even after Ivan...and on the Tasha...

Anya squeezed her eyes closed and staggered a few steps from the door, flushing hot and feeling like she was going to vomit. He had lied and manipulated her with more than just his words.

There was a commotion inside muffled by the partially closed door. Dimitri was raising his voice - no, yelling - at the elderly Dowager Empress of Russia. Anya's hand found her mouth in shock at his disrespect as she burned with her own shame for being involved at all.

How could he do this?

The door opened and the balcony seemed to spit Dimitri out on the ground at Anya's feet, the universe seeing fit for him to answer to her for his crimes.

The visual of him in his rumpled tuxedo prostrate before her was a small justice in itself, but it would never be enough. He froze when he raised his head to find her velvet pumps. In the time it took for his guilty gaze to rise to hers, Anya's own sense of disgrace had dissipated, replaced with a toxic stew of disgust and fury and violent heartache that had started to boil up through her body from her toes.

She couldn't swallow, her throat was so tight. Her skin felt like a body suit a size too small. Her heartbeat was a heavy, slow throb in her ears as her broken heart struggled to keep pumping blood so thickened with rage.

"It was all a lie, wasn't it." She knew the answer. Her tone was lifeless and flat, belying the earthquake of emotion that threatened to rend her in half.

"" Dimitri scrambled to stand and right himself, but Anya stepped closer to ensure she filled his field of vision when he tried to look away. "'No reward.' That's what you said."

"Anya - "

"You used me...I was just part of your con to get her money." Her voice grew hoarse as she strained to avoid the hysterics threatening to take her over. It took everything she had not to jump on Dimitri and pound him into the ground like she would have back at the orphanage.

When he opened his mouth to respond, Anya knew she had to get away from him. She had to get out of the building. The feeling inside her churned higher and hotter, and she would not be able to contain herself if she didn't leave while she still had some control.

She turned on her heel to stalk down the hall but Dimitri pursued her. "No, no, no, may have started out that way, but everything's different now because you really are are!"

He was speaking so fast his words were running together and he was still lying. Anya spun with clenched fists that would not stop trembling. She was about to lose it. "Just stop it!" She stared him down, eyes on fire. "From the very beginning, you lied! And I not only let myself believe you like a moron, I actually - " A choked sob welled up in her throat and cut her off. One stupid tear escaped before she could stop it. Just one. Anya angrily swiped it away so hard she smeared eye makeup across her cheek and on the fingertips of her white glove.

"Anya, please..." She had turned away again and Dimitri hurried around from behind to keep her from walking away.

"I don't want to hear it, Dimitri!"

So stupid. She actually loved him, like an idiot, like the kind of woman she had sworn she would never be, while he'd played her from the very beginning. And she'd let it happen.

She was almost as angry with herself as she was with him. She knew better.

"Move." Dimitri blanched like he saw murder in her eyes when he blocked her path again, as did the other theater patrons beginning to gawk at the spectacle they were making.

"Anya, wait! When you spoke of the hidden door in the wall opening, and the little boy...listen to me, that was - "

"You're a fucking liar." The words escaped her clenched teeth in a long hiss as she poked him in the chest, harder with every syllable. "Everything you did, you did for yourself. The train, the ship..." Anya's jaw clenched. "Latvia." She could still taste Ivan's stench on the back of her tongue. Vestiges of terror still made the pit of her stomach drop if she didn't actively push his memory away. She cocked her head at Dimitri in disdain, nostrils flaring. "You would have just let him rape me if it would have gotten you to the money faster, right?" Her lip curled in contempt and she spat on the fancy carpet, just missing his shiny dress shoes. "You piece of shit."

Dimitri's face crumpled as if her words had caused physical trauma. "God," His desperation created a wildness in his eyes like a man perched on a cliff awaiting his impending death. "Anya, I swear on my mother's grave, I would never have let - "

"NO!" Anya screeched the word, startling herself and everyone else in the immediate vicinity. "You can swear on whatever dead person you want - I don't believe you!" He gaped in shock as if she had just stuck him between the ribs with a dagger. Anya shook from head to toe, trying to keep the tears behind the dam. She would never, ever let herself cry over Dimitri again.

She tried to escape one last time and Dimitri used his whole body to pen her in.

Anya exploded.

"FUCK YOU!" she somehow yelled in perfect French to a collective gasp from the crowd, shoving him back with both hands so hard he stumbled backwards and almost tripped over his own feet. Despite every instinct she'd had not to trust him, Dimitri had made her believe not just in he and Vladimir, but in her own ability to bring her impossible hope to fruition - to truly belong to someone who could love her for who she was, unconditionally. That Dimitri, if nothing else, was her friend.

She'd never forgive him for that.

"I don't want to hear about anything I said or remembered - just leave me alone!"

"Anya - "

Her right arm was already in motion when he grabbed her left wrist, the impending slap a knee-jerk reaction, but her fingers curled into a fist mid-swing and Anya ended up socking Dimitri right in the mouth, painfully popping all of her knuckles. He and everyone else standing around them made a noise of surprise and dismay in unison, but Anya had already pushed through the mass of fine furs and jewels and made it halfway down the second set of stairs, headed for the coat check.

Chest still heaving, she could see Sophie's car parked in the lot off to the side once she ran through the front doors, but Anya didn't dare hunt down the driver for a ride back to the hotel. Thankfully, it was close enough to hoof it. She just hoped Coco's fancy heels didn't cover her feet in blisters.

Tucking the voluminous fur closer around her body against the chilly night air as she marched, Anya felt every bit the impostor the Dowager likely thought her to be. Every stitch of her borrowed finery felt like a lie against her skin. Every ounce of the makeup she'd thought had made her look so pretty earlier that night now felt like a clown mask. Dimitri had tainted everything.

Her feet pounded like a toothache before she'd walked two blocks. Undeterred, Anya slipped one off after the other, hooking two fingers into the backs to carry them both in one hand. Strangely, she found a tiny measure of relief in the feel of the cold, uneven cobblestones digging into her bare feet.

The authorities had found her this way as a child, shoeless and eating daintily out of trashcans. It was almost a year after she'd been delivered to the orphanage before Comrade Phlegmenkoff had allowed her to have her own, supposedly because they were short on supply. The beating she'd earned after the headmistress caught her sporting a worn leather pair she'd pilfered from the supply closet was the beginning of her first winter of hell as a motherless child.

Feeling the grit gather between her toes as she walked the dark Parisian street felt more normal to her than the impossibly soft mink brushing against her neck.

The sob tried to return, swirling and burning behind her ribs and closing off her throat again.

This was why she hadn't allowed herself to trust anyone. This was why she'd always kept her heart under lock and key. Anya had resisted Dimitri and his ideas with all her might, but he never gave up, not until she was finally putty in his hands. And her heart had been broken twice. Once for a scumbag of a man she'd been foolish enough to fall in love with, and again for the family she'd so desperately wanted to be hers.

The temperature dropped steadily, transforming her panting breaths to clouds in the air and numbing her toes. She had half a mind to put the shoes back on but didn't want to get them as filthy as her feet. Instead, she walked faster when the facade of the hotel came into view a few blocks ahead.

Anya's relentless shivers made her joints ache by the time she clamored into the hotel lobby, garnering an odd look from the bellhop and the few guests sipping coffee in the high-backed chairs near the crackling fireplace.

Face aflame, Anya gave thanks that she'd remembered to tuck her room key inside her coat's inner pocket and didn't have to ask the snooty receptionist for another. She dashed down the hallway with her head down and slammed the door closed as soon as she got into her room.

The fireball of emotion she'd been running from since the theater caught up to her in the quiet stillness. Fists clenched so hard her fingertips left bruises in her palms, she paced the floor at the foot of her bed.

Dimitri had used her.

Vladimir had used her.

Like a means to an end, a plaything. Like fucking lottery ticket.

What had they planned to do once the truth came out? Take the money and run before they were caught and discard her like trash to pay the consequences? No one would believe she hadn't been a part of their scheme.

Anya sniffled hard, her nose running like a faucet out of nowhere. She'd had no idea her eyes had been leaking angry tears until a couple dripped onto her décolletage. She lifted her hand to wipe them away and saw the makeup smudges on her glove - as well as the bright red splotch of blood from Dimitri's mouth, a jarring sight against the pure white satin.

With a ferocious noise of abhorrence, Anya struggled to peel off the tight gloves and flung them on the bed. Then she threw her pair of heels together against the far window with a thud. A water glass on the desk found itself in her grip and she chucked it with a shriek, splintering it into a million glittering shards when it crashed into the wall next to the headboard.

Anya breathed hard, trying to catch her breath. She was done letting anyone else control her life. Maybe she'd find her way back to the fishing village, or maybe she'd make some kind of life for herself here in Paris. Maybe she'd even make a family on her own terms someday, since the one she'd been born with was lost to her forever. Regardless, it would be her choice. And right now, she had no idea where she'd go or what she'd do, but Anya was getting out of this hotel. She'd find a way to pay Sophie back for the broken property.

She stood on tiptoe to snatch her suitcase off the closet shelf with renewed purpose and tossed it onto the bed with a grunt, still sniffling and periodically wiping at her eyes with the back of her hand.

Anya didn't need Dimitri or Vladimir. She didn't need anyone. So she'd made a mistake and had been knocked onto her backside for it - fine. She sure as hell wasn't going to stay that way. Not allowing herself to think too hard about the gifted clothes she was torn about taking, Anya threw any piece of fabric her hands found in the dresser drawers or on a hanger haphazardly into the suitcase.

A knock sounded at the door.

Anya froze, holding her breath. Dimitri. She hoped he would think she was already gone and she wouldn't have to see him. When the knock came again, Anya yelled over her shoulder. "Go away, Dimitri!"

When the knock came a third time, Anya let loose a string of Russian curses.

Surprisingly, the door creaked open, illuminating the bed with a widening triangle of light from the hallway. Anya realized with a start she had forgotten to lock it.

Well, if he wanted round two, she would give it to him.

Anya spun around on the attack. "Dimitri, you've got some balls to - oh!"

There was a woman at the door wearing a floor-length violet gown, statuesque and icy. Light from the wall sconces on the wall behind her played across the diamonds set into the crown atop her silver hair.

It was the woman. The Dowager.

Anya shrank back with wide eyes and a deep red face, mortified by her gutter behavior. "I-I'm so sorry, I thought you were - "

"I know very well who you thought I was," the Dowager announced, striding into the room as if it were her own. Her polished cane clicked against the wood floor but did nothing to diminish her stature. "I can understand your sentiment; I have recently made his acquaintance." She studied Anya through a suspicious squint. "And who exactly are you?"

Anya stared back for a long time, too astonished by the turn of events to manage any extraneous movement. How many times had she imagined the moment when she would meet her grandmother face to face? She had thought she would feel ecstatic, but now all she felt was stupefied, as if every other emotion had been shorted out by her shock.

Dimitri and Vladimir had been feeding her lies all along. It was more likely Anya could sprout wings and fly back to Russia than for her to be this woman's kin...yet there was something familiar about her manner that made Anya's heart swell and ache in equal measure. It reminded her of the haunting feeling in the Winter Palace, the fleeting sensation of longing, of trying to recall the best parts of a dream only to have them slip away.

"I-I was hoping you could tell me."

The Dowager sighed, moving deeper into the large room but still keeping several paces between them. "My dear, I'm old, and I am tired of being conned and tricked."

"I don't want to trick you, I swear." Anya clasped her hands together before her, trying to keep a hold on her nerves. "I would never...I didn't know he was going to do this."

The Dowager raised a perfectly arched eyebrow, presumably understanding the "he" Anya was referring to. "And I suppose the money doesn't interest you either?"

Anya shook her head. "No, Your Majesty. Dimitri had told me there was no reward when I'd asked. I didn't find out about it until tonight." The mention of Dimitri's deceit made the sick, sinking feeling in her stomach return. She unfurled her hands and spread them, holding her arms out to bare her soul. "I just want to know who I am. Whether or not I belong to a family...your family. That's it."

The Dowager, who had turned away toward the open window, turned back with a sardonic, closed-lipped smile. Both of her gloved hands toyed with her cane. "You're a very good actress. Best yet, in fact, but...I've had enough." She punctuated her statement with a disapproving frown and began to walk back the way she'd come.

Anya couldn't speak, nor did she notice how unnaturally slow the monarch was moving toward the door. She was too consumed with trying to commit to memory every detail of the Dowager's presence to sustain her in the future - not the thumb-sized sapphires glittering at her earlobes or the yards of fine fabric that made up her elegant gown. The grandmotherly things. The huskiness of her voice, the innate grace of her movements. The smooth, clear complexion, the soft folds of skin at corners of her sharp blue eyes and around her mouth, her scent of...of...

"Peppermint?" Anya had caught the faintest whiff of it as the Dowager had passed and had smelled it with her whole body, the pang of recognition pealing through her like a gong.

The Dowager paused to glance over her shoulder with another raised eyebrow. "An oil for my hands."

"Yes..." Anya's eyes slid closed, flashes like snippets of movie scenes playing behind her lids. Her wild hair clinging to the streams of tears on her cheeks. A dark puddle on a Persian rug. The slippery feel of cool oil on her fingertips when she rubbed her little hand through the fibers, aching.

Her mouth moved unbeknownst to her as she watched like an observer in her own head. "I...I spilled a bottle...and it forever smelled of you." When the images started to fade, Anya pulled her gold necklace free of her dress and gripped the pendant in her fist, desperately trying to draw the strength to chase them down.

It worked. "I used to lie there on that rug and oh how I missed you when you went away...when you came Paris." The memories went to black again, like a wall slammed down in front of them. It was as if there was a void in her mind vaguely shaped like the Dowager, but she wasn't sure how to place the puzzle piece.

"What is that?" When Anya looked up, the Dowager was seated on the tufted bench to the vanity across from Anya's bed, her hand gesturing.

Anya followed with her eyes to the gold chain now dangling from her neck. "This? I've always had it, ever since before I can remember." Her first memory of it was the fight she'd had to endure to keep it, with a grown man who lived in an alley who'd tried to take it to pawn for food. He'd bloodied her lip but Anya had been proud of the scratches she'd left all over his face before she'd managed to scurry away. "I woke up one day and it was right here, against my heart." She pressed a hand over the pendant, against her chest. "I didn't know what it meant, but I knew it was important. I knew I had to come here."

The Dowager's face paled, a strange gleam in her eyes. "May I?" She patted the empty space on the bench next to her.

"Of course." Anya hurried over, carefully settling on the edge next to the Dowager after handing over the necklace, suppressing her anxiety about giving it to someone else for the first time.

The Dowager stared at the delicate chain coiled in her palm like a loved one. "It...was our secret, my Anastasia's and mine."

A secret. A song.

Anya could feel something chipping away at the dam to her memories. There was something familiar about that necklace in the Dowager's hand...

The older woman produced a small handbag made of the same fabric of her gown, apparently having been hidden within her voluminous sleeve and attached to her wrist with a small strap. She settled the pouch in her lap and pulled forth what looked like a round jewelry box made of gold, no bigger than the palm of her hand.

Anya didn't know how she knew it was more than that, but she did. She could see the movie flashes again - a party, a gift.

A promise.

The Dowager reverently placed the box in Anya's hand along with the necklace. In that instant, she could see it plain as day: the smiling Dowager - Marie Feodorovna, her Grandmama - handing her that very box along with the chain she'd been wearing around her neck for years. The necklace was the key, in every sense of the word.

She remembered.

"The music box," she breathed. " you could still sing me to sleep while you were in Paris..." And the tune that had always lived in her heart, the nostalgic melody that formed the soundtrack to both her dreams and nightmares, rose in a hum into Anya's throat as she inserted the end of the pendant into the side of the music box and turned it. "Hear this song and remember..."

Marie's shaking voice rose to meet hers in perfect unison, word for word.

"Soon you'll be...home with me...once upon a December."

Her eyes burned and the image of the Dowager went wavy. All her other memories were hazy and gray at the moment, but for now, she remembered Marie and that was all that mattered.

"Oh, Malenkaya..." Marie snatched Anya into the most profound hug, enveloping her in an almost painful warmth that penetrated through to her crippled spirit. She stayed wrapped up inside her grandmother's peppermint-laced embrace for ages, until a deep shudder from the Dowager made Anya wipe her eyes and lean back.

Marie's soft hands found Anya's cheeks, her chin, drifting over her face in disbelief, as if she was trying unearth the child she had known with her fingertips. Happy tears trickling down her face, Anya closed her eyes and allowed her free roam. When she looked at her grandmother again, her eyes were wet and red but her smile remained.

"I...I have searched for you for so long, my darling. And to think I had given up hope..."

Anya shook her head and grabbed Marie's hand, pressing it to her cheek, trying to convey her happiness and gratitude without the words she was incapable of speaking.

"What happened to you?" Marie continued, voice breaking. "I immediately wanted to go back to the city to find you but it was deemed too dangerous. No one knew where you were...I'd feared you were dead until I'd heard rumors of a little girl who looked like you wandering St. Petersburg."

What little Anya could recall from that period of her life was more feelings and emotions than actual events. She remembered the squalidness of it, and the cold.

"I don't remember much. I woke up one day with the necklace around my neck and I was hungry. That's all I knew. I didn't know my name or where I lived, so I just wandered. My whole existence was finding food and trying not to freeze to death."

Marie went white, eyes slipping closed and brow furrowing as if she were trying not to faint.

"I did that until the authorities caught me and turned me in to the orphanage." Anya thought of the dried blood that had matted her hair for weeks back then. "The doctor who examined me said I hit my head on something. He thought that might have been why I couldn't remember anything." Anya squeezed Marie's hand in her lap when she hung her royal head. "But I remember you." It was the truth. She may have only been able to see Marie in disjointed fragments without context in her mind, but she was there.

Marie erupted with a fresh deluge of tears. "I am so sorry, little one."

"No, Grandmama," Anya said, beyond happy that the endearment felt so natural on her tongue, "it wasn't your fault." She smiled, her own tears slipping into her mouth at the corners. "You looked for me. I found you." She gave a tearful little laugh. "And here we are."

At that, Marie crushed Anya in another hug, and Anya thought she heard her say in her ear: "Please...if it should not be you, don't ever tell me."

When she let her go at last, the Dowager's smile shone so bright, Anya thought she must have imagined her whispered plea. "Come. We will go to my home here in the city immediately. We will not be apart another moment." She pulled Anya to her feet with surprising strength before leaving her to rush to the window. "It would appear my automobile remains but not my driver...where is your telephone? Perhaps Sophie can send hers..."

Dazed, Anya directed her to the phone and sank onto the foot of the bed with a wide-eyed stare. This felt like a dream. The sound of her grandmother's raspy voice rising in pitch and tone in excitement as she spoke with Sophie barely registered. This was it. Anya had gotten what she had dreamed of her entire life - a family, someone who loved her. She could see that love beaming from the Dowager's eyes, the deep blue so much like her own.

So why did she still feel so empty?

Marie had barely hung up after giving Sophie a play-by-play of the night's events when the phone rang again. "Come, darling," she said after hanging up the receiver on the dresser for the final time, "the driver is here." She reached out her hand to Anya, her familial smile an odd contrast with her diamond crown.

Anya was finding it more and more difficult to smile past the hollow feeling in the pit of her stomach, drowning her new joy, but she managed it. Before she retrieved her discarded shoes, she very discreetly rubbed her feet as clean as she could against the carpet. "What about my things? Sophie let me borrow quite a few - "

Marie shook her head. "Don't worry. We'll send for them later."

She took Marie's hand and let her lead her outside. Sophie's driver met them at the front door of the hotel with an umbrella for the heavy rain that had descended upon the city. Marie wouldn't hear of him escorting each of them in turn to the car. She linked one arm with Anya's and used her other hand to lift her abundant skirts above the puddles in the street as the driver handed them into the cabin, Anya sliding in first to allow her grandmother the seat closest to the curb.

The door closed and bathed them in darkness, the meager light from the street lamp nearby enough only to draw them each in silhouette.

"I still cannot believe it." Marie's voice had grown prayerful in its softness. She still hadn't let go of Anya's hand, almost as if she were afraid to.

Anya squeezed her fingers with as much fervor as she could without hurting her. "Neither can I."

Driver now behind the wheel, the car gently lurched into a street virtually free traffic due to the late hour. Marie's eyes never left Anya, the dignified lines of her face draped in new shadows as the car passed from light to darkness and back again under the street lights. "What is it exactly...that you can remember?" She asked, her words halting and timid. "From our life before?"

Anya had been dreading the question. Her thoughts at the moment revealed nothing, as dark as the inside of the car. "Some things, I guess...sometimes. I get flashes. A detail here and there. Like your scent, for example...or - " Anya shut her eyes and reached into the blankness of her mind for the first memories that floated to the surface - "Papa's beard. Or Mama's pearls." Anya looked down at her lap. "Most of the time, it's just black in my head when I try to remember, like there's a block there that I can't see past."

She looked up into Marie's sad eyes, her own burning with tears at the ready. "I'm sorry. I wish I could remember more."

"Oh, my have absolutely nothing to feel sorry about. Even if you never remember everything, I will still be right here." When she reached out and stroked Anya's cheek with the back of her hand, Anya closed her eyes at the comforting touch of warm satin. "But I think I may have something that may help."

Even after they arrived at Marie's home, a miniature palace hidden away in an exclusive neighborhood near the Seine, Marie still hadn't let go of Anya's hand. They exited the car and walked through patches of moonlight to pass through the oversized front doors together. Anya shivered as she followed Marie up the steep wooden staircase, the dampness of her gown from the rain taking its toll.

The Dowager had the maid who appeared at the door to her palatial bedroom bring hot tea and nightclothes for Anya, who slipped out of her wet dress in a bathroom as large as the orphanage kitchen. Still in her undergarments, Anya's fingers stroked the fine pink silk of the folded pajamas still sitting on the sink.

It took her a long time to brave the mirror, afraid of what she'd see, of bearing witness to Dimitri and Vladimir's betrayal like a tattoo on her forehead. Her face was a mess, as expected. Her eyes were rimmed red and puffy from crying tears fed by both fury and joy. Very carefully, she took down her hair and washed her face with the almond-scented soap the Dowager had provided. She rubbed the suds all over her face and neck and shoulders and feet, wiping her skin with a damp cloth again and again, until she felt scrubbed clean of Dimitri and Vladimir, of Ivan, of even her childhood in the orphanage. When she finished and her cheeks were pink and glistening and her eyes were bright, she surprised herself with a genuine smile. It was nice to feel a little more like Anya again. She had worried the days of knowing her real self were behind her.

She left the bathroom to find Marie stretched out on the navy blue chaise near the balcony, smiling down at a basket full of knickknacks and papers. She was dressed for bed as well, her taupe nightgown with matching robe pooling around her against the velvet upholstery.

Looking up and smiling at Anya from across the way, she said, "Come...see if any of this is familiar to you, darling."

Anya padded across the ornate rug to her side and sat down on the floor. Marie grinned, reaching into a basket on the gilded side table. "Look here - the drawing you gave me, remember?" She handed the watercolor painting to Anya, still chuckling.

Anya took it from her hands, the delicate paper crackling. In her mind's eye she could see a dark-haired girl in a long dress the color of cream, frowning down at the same painting in her hand while Anya looked on with pride and anticipation. Olga, her sister. Anya had been trying to get her opinion on her artwork and had not liked her answer.

She giggled. "I do! Olga made me so mad - she said it looked like a pig riding a donkey." Anya raised an astute eyebrow at her own childish efforts. "She was right." She burst out laughing and her grandmother joined in.

"Oh...hearing your laughter, I once again hear my Nicky, your dear father," Marie said once their laughter had faded to intermittent chuckles." She reached down and cupped Anya's chin with a gentle hand. "But you have the beauty of your mother, Alexandra, Empress of all Russia. As did your sisters." She released Anya and turned to the basket again, this time pulling out a large photograph in a silver frame. She handed the frame to Anya with both hands and a sad smile.

Anya stared down at the frame, her arms cradling it in her lap. It was a photo of all the Romanov children. Olga, Maria, Tatiana, Alexei. And Anya. That was her face in the photo among them. All at once, the wall in her mind broke apart and the memories flooded in - the parties, the fights, the pranks, the tears, the laughter, the games...

"I remember now." She looked up at her grandmother, her eyes brimming, her heart about to break all over again. "I remember how much I loved them, and Mama and Papa. And you."

Marie did nothing to hide her own tears. She reached out to Anya again and placed a soft hand on her wrist to comfort her. "They would not want us to live in the past, not now that we have found each other."

Anya gulped, trying to rein herself back in before she couldn't anymore. "I...I think I need to lie down."

"Of course. You can take my bed, if you like." Marie delicately dabbed at her eyes before pushing herself off the couch. "I'll be just a moment."

Anya dragged herself over to the bed, taking little notice of the gold fixtures or velvet hangings above the headboard, or the soft light from the chandelier she doubted could be turned off. She had never felt so depleted, quickly curling herself into a fetal position once she had slipped between the covers.

The rest of her family was dead. Her mother, her father. All her sisters. Her little brother.

Her best friend, Irina.

Her self respect.

Her paternal relationship with Vladimir.

Everything she and Dimitri could have been.

When the tears came this time, Anya couldn't have stopped them if she tried. There was a hole where her heart should have been that had filled with a profound grief for everyone and everything she had lost and she wailed into the pillow, gasping for air as she soaked the fine silk pillowcase.

Just when she was afraid she would come apart at the seams, she caught the scent of peppermint and felt her grandmother's soft arms encircle her from behind and hold her together, keeping her in one piece to weep until her well of tears had gone dry.