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a million little stars, spelling out your name

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Untouchable, like a distant diamond sky,
I'm reaching out and I just can't tell you why.


I'm caught up in you, I'm caught up in you,

 

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The moment Anya's life begins to unfold, at last, after years of aimless wandering, comes so subtly and unsolicited that she might have missed it entirely, had circumstances not aligned the way they did. A cold morning, the backfiring of a truck and her life-long fears, her body hitting the pavement like her survival depends on it. 

The man who helps her up from the ground, his hand on her elbow, gives her a few kind words (small treasures, in this day and age) which chase away some of the panic in her heart. He invites her to tea, she refuses (she has learned the hard way to always look gift horses in the mouth.)

As she flees from his sweet smile under the guise of getting back to work, she hears him call out to her, "I'm here everyday!" with such enthusiasm, like a child making a vow, and a weight she had not perceived before lifts from her chest.

Life goes on, regardless. She isn't always sent to sweep the cobblestones of the Nevsky Prospekt, and for the most part she manages to put him out of mind... But there is a new warmth in her chest, when she remembers that there is someone, somewhere, waiting for her.

She sweeps her way across Leningrad with frantic energy, anxious and restless even when she isn't consciously thinking of it, but always in the back of her mind there is the hope, the goal, that if she works hard enough she might yet manage to dash her way through the busy streets back to the one person who said he'd be there.

She doesn't quite dare to hope, and yet her heart asks no permission to start pounding in her chest whenever she spots a tall, straight-backed frame and a head of dark hair in an officer's uniform. 

Oh, this troublesome heart of hers, it stutters and races and swells with something she can't quite name, nausea clawing up her throat and hands clammy on the stick of her broom, as she waits for a stranger across the street to turn around. She has spent her whole life keeping an eye out for someone, anyone, who might recognize her at last. She had thought there was no greater tragedy than looking for someone she did not know the face of, a needle in a haystack.

Now, from the way her stomach drops every time a man turns around and she finds it's not him, she thinks this might be a worse fate.

She tells herself she's too lonely, and that she's grasping at empty air. She tells herself she is being ridiculous, for what would she even do with him should she find him again? Exchange a few pleasantries? Shake his hand, perhaps? Smile back when he gives her that warm, hopeful look? 

She knows she certainly would not take him up on anything he offered her, and there is only so much time they could stand in the middle of the street, engaged in small courtesies that are going nowhere, before he grows tired of her reticence and finally excuses himself from her presence. Then, she'd return the next day to find him gone, and that would be the end of this silly fancy that has taken up so much room in her heart.

Sometimes, she'd rather tell herself it doesn't matter she has not been sent to the Nevsky Prospekt in weeks, for there would be no one waiting for her at all. He'd have returned once, maybe twice, before giving up on the poor little street sweeper he wanted to take advantage of. 

And she tells herself perhaps it is a blessing in disguise that she has been kept away from his path, even as a quiet desperation claws at her lungs, and she goes about her every day with a sense of urgency she can never get rid of.

She tells herself many, many things, over the cold nights under the bridge. Sleep is hard enough to come by without her mooning away over a man she spoke to once, god knows how many weeks ago.

But even as she catalogues all these arguments and fools herself that she might be growing calmer (more resigned) each day, that heart of hers still stutters, like the little traitor it is, when she is finally sent back to the Nevsky Prospekt.

It's almost too much to bear, to sweep these cobblestones up and down, nervous that she might see him again any moment now, dreading what she might do, what she might feel when confronted with his kind smile again... Though perhaps even more nervous that he could very possibly not show up at all, and she can already feel the ghost of that future pain clutching at her heart. 

She goes about her work slowly, drawing the hours out and dragging even the most stubborn grime between the crevices of the stones, getting side-eyed by the other women at work. She might very well be putting her job in jeopardy, but the thought of finishing too soon and missing him by a few split seconds is too painful, and so she takes the risk.

The sun is high in the sky and she has very nearly reached the end of her rope with the other women's patience when, as if emerging from a mirage, she sees him.

Her tell-tale heart, surprisingly, remains relatively calm, slowing down in relief rather than jumping at attention. Her hands remain dry and her grip on her broomstick firm, even if there is nothing to be done for the tingling swell of pure, unadultered feeling that nestles deep in her gut.

Calm and collected as she feels, she quickly notices the finer details. The proud and straight stance she remembers is now hunched, shoulders drawn in on themselves, and the high-held, strong chin that seemed to her so confident, so charming before, is turned down almost to meet his chest.

He seems quite sad, even to a stranger like her, and her heart, that had till now remained calm, slowly begins climbing up that slippery slope of hopes and expectations that she has been trying so hard to avoid.

She wants to call out to him, and is reminded that she did not learn his name the first time they met. She stares straight at him but he doesn't look up, continues addressing the stones she has so painstakingly been sweeping all morning, looking so dejected, and she feels she might die if he does not look up at her soon.

After some eternal moments of watching this pitiful scene unfold before her, she decides she has suffered this nonsense long enough, and is therefore entitled to make the first move even if it might give him the wrong idea.

(In a far corner of her mind, a voice she has tried hard to keep under lock and key whispers, to hell with caution, "the wrong idea" might just be exactly what you're looking for.)

She discreetly sweeps her way towards him, keeping her head down all the time and praying none of the other sweepers notice her retreating down a block she has finished already, or God forbid, infer her intentions in doing so.

The way the side of her body collides with him is almost natural enough that even she might believe it was an accident, and if the letany of apologies that pour from his mouth is any indication, it might even look like it was his fault. The arm that winds around her to steady her seems to burn through the layers of her coat and her blouse underneath, she feels his grip down to her very bones. 

She looks up into his face, closer than she's ever seen it, and for an agonizing moment there is no recognition in it. She starts to feel herself light-headed – Oh, but of course he wouldn't remember her! A measly little street sweeper in ragged clothes, dirt on her thin, sallow face... a nobody! Of all the things she told herself, of all the possibilities she conjured up in her long lonely nights, she never thought of this cruellest of turns.

She is about to rip herself away and scamper off to lick her wounds, when at last his eyes widen and a light flickers to life in his dark eyes.

"It's you..." he exhales, like the wind's been knocked out of him (perhaps it was, she did just slam herself into him.) "The frightened little street sweeper," and the awed tone of his voice makes her forgive him the condescending moniker.

A breath whooshes out of her in relief, and then...

Then she realizes she has no idea what to do next. Does she pretend not to know him? Does she return his enthusiasm and gush about the miracle of finding him again? Does she run away? Oh, what was she thinking, getting herself into this? 

She remains there, stunned, not even shaking off the hand he still has on her elbow, and from the nervousness rapidly seeping into the man's face, she must look like a petrified little thing, this fragile girl,  staring wide-eyed and frozen at a police officer.

"I am so sorry for bumping into you, comrade," he begins, sizing up her stiff posture and quickly dropping his hand when he notices it still on her person. "Here you are, working avidly like the good countrywoman you are, and this incompetent officer lost in a daydream gets in your way!" He lets out a shaky laugh, and smiles at her almost expectantly, and she realizes he is making a joke and waiting for her reaction.

Again, she is unsure how to respond, and her smile is slightly forced and comes too late to offer any reassurance. He looks down, biting his lips and crossing his hands behind his back to hide their fidgeting. Her mind starts racing, as she realizes he might give up on her and leave if she gives no signs of interest, and she grasps at the tail end of his joke for something to say.

"And what were you daydreaming about?"

His eyes snap up to her in shock, and she feels herself blush a little under his hopeful gaze... She thinks she knows the answer, she hopes she does, when he blushes a little too, and looks away for a moment. He seems at war with himself over his answer. 

She tries to keep her breathing under check as she waits, her face straight, her hopes down. But when he looks back at her his embarrassment has not gone away, and he rubs the back of his neck as he replies, chagrined to no end, "Well, there is a girl I have been hoping to catch a glimpse of again, somewhere in this square, for a while now..."

There is a smile blooming somewhere in the muscles of her face, and the most pleasant feeling inside her chest, to be on the receiving end of that gaze of his. She knows about hope, and she knows about daydreaming and she knows about waiting. It seems the most beautiful thing to her lonely heart that anyone is feeling those things for her. 

She's not sure what her face is doing, she thinks she might be smiling but her eyes are prickling with tears, and she feels warm all over but also cold (and honestly a bit nauseous too). Whatever it is she's showing, it seems enough to encourage him rather than deter him, and he proceeds to ask her about her job, a not so subtle way to find out what has kept her from this part of town. She rattles of the list of places she has covered over the last month or so, and he, not so subtly, inquires which are the ones she frequents the most.

She knows officers are supposed to be the ears of the government and would often try to weed out information from possible traitors without raising suspicion, but she can't help but think he must not be very good at this job. His inept attempts at subtlety are endearing, though, and make her feel more at ease with him, thinking if he were to try to interrogate her for supposed crimes she would see it coming a mile away. 

They stand there in the middle of the street and continue in this way for a few minutes, which seem to her endless and still they end too soon, when the side-eyes from the other sweepers are so obvious even he notices.

"I do not want to get you in trouble or keep you from your duties, I know how much you value them," he says, regretfully, and her heart sinks right down to the soles of her feet. She knew from the start there was not much to hope for, and this small moment of casual companionship has already been the warmest conversation she's had all year, but her greedy heart cries out that it is not enough, not by far.

She looks down at the broom in her hands and waits for him to say goodbye, fare you well and take care, it was nice to see you again, and then never hear from him again, for what more could he want now that he has talked to her and found her so shy and closed-off? Surely he has realized he will not get much out of her, and if he had less than noble intentions, there are dozens of girls prettier than her and far more willing to comply.

(Having spoken to him, though, even for this little while, makes her rather ashamed to accuse him of these intentions when he seems so genuinely nice, and dare she say naïve, but she has found that more often than not, men who offer too much kindness are not to be trusted.)

When the silence goes on for a tad too long, she begins shuffling her broom around, even though she has already swept this area to near perfection. Under the guise of her sweeping she begins to step away, hoping he'll get the message and tip his hat goodbye and move along, for she does not have to will power to dismiss him herself.

He does get the message, but his reaction is not what she was expecting. "Comrade, if I may be so bold... What time are you off duty?"

She's frozen in place, for the hundredth time today, and she still does not know how to respond to him turning the tables on her like this. It's getting a little frustrating, to be so easily disarmed by a perfect stranger, but she can't deny the part of her that is thankful for his insistence.

"It depends of when I'm finished here..." He opens his mouth a bit too quickly, most likely to invent some excuse for lurking around the square later in the day, but she rushes in to finish her explanation, "and if I'm finished too early I will most likely be sent elsewhere, and continue sweeping until sundown."

He frowns at that, mouth twisting as he considers this. There is no point in asking her where she'll be sent afterwards, nor when she will be found sweeping the Nevsky Prospekt again, for she has already told him she has no way of knowing where she'll go next.

Helplessness rises inside her chest as she stares at him, so deeply concentrating on this issue, she can imagine the wheels turning in his head as he tries to find a solution, and she wishes and wishes for just a little bit of freedom, that she may give him concrete hopes of finding her again, that she may feed what little regard he holds for her right now.

As things stand, though, she is a slave to this job that has at least kept her fed somewhat regularly, and while she may not be keen on sleeping under the bridge, she knows she could be much worse off without this small income.

He heaves out a sigh that sounds like defeat, and she braces herself... "It seems I will have to roam this place longer than I planned."

She looks at him in disbelief, and the corner of his mouth lifts in that silly smile she's coming to learn preceeds one of his silly jokes, "In time you may come to hear the myth of the Phantom of the Nevsky Prospekt, haunting these streets in wait of a beautiful girl."

A genuine laugh is startled out of her, which then cascades into a fit of snorts she tries her hardest to restrain. His half smile blossoms into a wide grin, and she's pretty sure he's puffing his chest out a little.

Her laughter, however, prompts louder complaints from her workmates who start grumbling quite intently. One even whistles to call her attention, Anya's smile dying when she catches her eye, a renowned gossip who's in more than friendly dealings with the boss. Cold washes through her whole being at the prospect of being told on for slacking off, and from the way the woman holds her gaze, Anya knows without a doubt that she will tell. 

Then something strange happens, and the woman staring her down goes paler than Anya feels, lowering her gaze and busying herself with her work again.

Anya looks around in confusion, and finds her officer glaring in the same direction of... Did he just...? She gapes at him, because she had never considered he could look this menacing, not when he has behaved so awkwardly and seemed to her so inept at his job just minutes ago.

When he's satisfied to have sufficiently scared off her quasi-enemy, he turns to her and tells her, in the most severe tone she's yet to hear from him, "I can see I have caused enough disturbance in your workplace for today, but should you get into any trouble on my account, do not hesitate to come see me about it." He looks at the woman, who has managed quite effectively to scamper away from them, and his glare returns for a brief moment.

Anya whispers a limpid, non-committal thank you, for she knows she would never take him up on such an offer. He gives her a small nod and begins to turn away, looking unreasonably uncomfortable considering a moment ago he was joking about going out of his way to meet her again.

A now familiar panic sets in at the thought of him leaving, and for once, inspiration strikes her just in time. "And in any such event, who should I come looking for?"

"Oh," he exclaims, taken off guard by her being so proactive at last. "How terribly rude of me, I have not even introduced myself, have I?" He smiles nervously, back to the boyish manners as he smooths down his uniform and straightens his posture to an almost comical degree.

"Deputy Commissioner Gleb Vaganov, at your service, comrade," and he extends his hand for her to shake. She hesitates only for a second, but when she puts her hand in his... she feels something, something that was rattling around in her chest finally slot into place, and for the first time, she lets herself smile back at him without reservations.

"I'm Anya," she tells him softly, and he repeats her name, as if trying it out.

They part ways, at long last, but it takes her a while to get back into her work, when she keeps looking up at his retreating form only to find him looking back, and waving... to which she responds with a shy little wave of her own... after the third or so time, though, she laughs and makes a shooing motion at him, and with a hearty peal of laughter that she can hear all the way across the square, he finally gets going for good. 

She had hoped for so long, and expected so little, and for the rest of the day she finds herself waltzing with her broom at times, and working hard to keep the smile off her face.

Somehow, she makes it through the day, and when she settles down at her usual spot under the bridge, the night doesn't seem that cold, with all the stars glittering on the surface of the water, and the sound of her name in his voice, echoing through her head like the beautiful music she hears only in her dreams.

Ah, her name! Simple and bland as she always thought it was, suddenly it sounds quite beautiful. Her restless mind blends it with his in the most unattainable of ways, her ludicrous hopes safely hidden under cover of dark.

She lets herself moon away the whole night through, spinning impossible dreams and weaving them into the blank spaces of her old ones. 

 

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But you're untouchable, burning brighter than the sun,
and now that you're close I feel like coming undone...
In the middle of the night, when I'm in this dream, 
it's like a million little stars spelling out your name.

 

—Untouchable, Taylor Swift