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love is a fragile word

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*

 

“They’re waiting for you,” Dmitri says. The sadness in every one of his words strikes her hard.

Anya takes the crown from him, studying it. In the darkness, it didn’t seem all that special.

Puka yelps, running in the open spaces between their feet. With a groan, Dmitri sits down again. “Oh hell,” he mumbles.

She looks at them, at Puka trying to lick all over Dmitri’s face as Dmitri holds his ribs, then back down at the crown. Her skirts are heavy, and don’t make for much good in a fight.

Maybe she’s not much of a princess after all.

“Where would we go?” she asks after a moment. The dust settles around them, the sky clearing. The last of Rasputin’s magic has filtered away.

He looks up at her, brows raised. “What?”

Stamping her foot, she shuffles over through her skirts and plops down next to him. “Where would you take me?”

“You aren’t serious.”

“I’m asking you, aren’t I?” she said impatiently, the crown hanging lightly from her fingers. “These shoes hurt so much,” she added with a whimper, digging for her feet through her skirts and tugging her heels off.

His hand catches one of hers, warm and gentle. She can feel the calluses from hard work and long hours, the burns from the kitchen; it’s no wonder he became a con man. “I couldn’t ask you to come with me. I don’t know where I’m going.”

Glaring at him, she slips her fingers into his, twining them together just as he had at the opera. Puka nestles between them, making a home in her skirt. “Who said anything about you asking me? Are you trying to be an idiot right now?”

“That’s a way to talk to the guy who just fought off a stone statue of a horse for you,” he snaps back.

It’s no way to talk to a princess, or a duchess, or whatever she could be, if she goes back. It’s the most like herself she’s felt in days.

The crown falls from her grasp, rolling along the cobblestone. Slowly she smiles, and puts her free hand to his cheek. “They may be waiting, but you came back,” she said softly.

His grip tightens around her fingers. “There might be a lot of jumping off of trains in our future.”

She snorts. “If you’re trying to scare me off, that won’t help. That was fun,” she teases.

“Anya—“

Because he won’t, she leans in and shuts him up herself. His mouth is warm and soft; she can taste the metallic tang of blood from the fight near the corner of his lips. A hand trails up the line of her throat to her cheek, keeping her close.

Abruptly, he pulls back. His brow furrows, his mouth thin and pursed. “So that really did happen. With the weird green things and the horse and the—“

She kisses him again, thoughts of adventure and him thrumming through her blood. This, she thinks, is where she belongs.

*

The boat travels down the Seine, puffing and steaming through the night. Anya pulls the pins from her hair and sighs with relief, the blood rushing back to her scalp.

“Oh, hell,” Dmitri mutters from the other end of the cabin.

She looks at him over her shoulder, her hair falling down her back. He’s shirtless, examining the bruises and scrapes along his chest and stomach. There are older scars there that she wants to learn about, but she’s hesitant to ask. She wonders how many of those came at her family’s fault.

He sees her looking, and smirks. “Like what you see, princess?”

Rolling her eyes, she turns back to the small mirror set on the wall of their cabin near the porthole. “You’re a mess.”

Behind her, he hisses. “Touching them won’t help,” she adds smartly.

“Because you’re such an expert,” he mutters.

Her fingers undo the clasps of her dress quickly. The sewing at the orphanage has made her fingers nimble. The lack of proper health care has made her more an expert at injuries than he realizes. She steps out of the heavy dress with a sigh, leaving her in her underskirt and corset, and walks towards him. “Lay down,” she commands.

Eyes glazed over, face slack, he just stares at her for a moment. She pokes him hard in the ribs and he jumps. Making a face, he shuffles to the small bunk and stretches out. Puka is passed out in the corner, having made a nice nest of Dmitri’s jacket. She sits at his side, laying her hands on his chest. His bare skin is hot to the touch.

“We should have gotten you another cabin,” he says after a moment, voice low.

She shrugs, feeling his ribs one by one. “What would be the point of that?”

“Well, we’re not married.”

“Yet,” she says, thinking of Scotland and Gretna Green, just a few days away. It had come to them on their way from her grandmother’s house to the boat; it was the easiest place to get married without anyone taking note of who she was and who he wasn’t.

Dmitri squirms under her touch. She grins. “You’re still a princess, you know.”

“Only if you keep calling me one,” she says, exasperated. “You’re fine, by the way. Just bruised.”

“No kidding,” he mutters.

She tucks her hair behind her ears, wrinkling her nose at him. “Dmitri, I grew up in a Russian orphanage. You’re not going to scandalize me.”

“Who says I was thinking about it?” he exclaims.

The swaying of the boat is slight and comforting, nothing like the storm on the steamer. She still shivers when she thinks of that night. “Look, are you planning on running out on me?” she asks evenly.

His face grows deadly serious. Sitting up, he touches her hair, smoothing it along the line of her arm. She hadn’t had the corset laced too tightly (there was hardly anything to lace, what with the orphanage diet keeping her small enough), but she suddenly found herself short of breath. “No,” he says softly, firmly. She knows he means it.

“Then I’m not worried about a stupid thing like whether we’re married or not,” she says. Her face is flushed but her voice is steady.

He curves his arm around her waist, like he had when they were dancing, and pulls her closer. She wets her lips, keeping her eyes on his. “You really are the strangest girl I’ve ever met,” he says, mouth curved in his usual half-smile.

She tries not to think of those other girls. Instead, she leans in and kisses him, her fingers sliding into the hair at the nape of his neck. He came back for her, she repeats to herself over and over as his hands slide across the line of her body to her spine. His fingers pluck at the laces of her corset.

“A little old fashioned, don’t you think?” he whispers against the corner of her mouth.

She arches towards him. His fingers tug along her vertebrae, loosening the laces. “It was necessary for the dress,” she mutters. “Believe me, I tried to get out of wearing it.”

His mouth stops at the curve of her throat, right near her jumping pulse. “Oh, I believe you. But I like it.”

“Get your fill now, it’s never coming back on,” she retorts, her fingers sliding down his bare chest.

“Really?” he asks in that voice she recognizes as a pout. His teeth graze her skin.

Her fingers dig in at his hips, right at the waist of his pants. He hisses, and she smiles. “Lay down,” she whispers, nudging him back. “You’ve had a rough night.”

He watches her from flat on his back, eyebrows up. “About that. Should I be expecting more weird voodoo magic and curses coming out of nowhere with you? I don’t know how prepared I am for that.”

“You’re Dmitri. Aren’t you prepared for anything? You have a plan for everything,” she teases, hitching up her thin underskirt and crawling over him. She can’t sit atop him like she wants to, what with the bottom of the top bunk so close, so she settles for lying next to him. Cheek on his shoulder, she curls her arm over his chest.

His hand lands on her thigh as it rests across his hip. “Not everything,” he says quietly, turning his face towards hers. “Not you.”

“Well, you did. It just didn’t turn out like you planned,” she says.

He curves his other arm around her, his fingers tangling in her hair. They are in their own little cocoon together; it feels right to be here with him, buffeted by the slow waves of the Seine. “I’m glad it didn’t,” he says.

She tilts her face up to his, kissing him once more. “So you love me,” she says with a grin.

Groaning, he looks up at the bottom of the top bunk. “Anya, come on—“

“Say it,” she teases.

“You haven’t said it either,” he retorts.

She opens her mouth to do just that, but the words stick in her throat. Her entire face flushes and she ducks into the hollow of his shoulder. For the first time since she thought he had betrayed her, she feels like crying, has the hot rush of tears behind her eyes.

“Hey. Hey. I was—god, Anya, I was only teasing,” he stammers after a moment, stroking her hair.

Swallowing hard, she presses her face into his skin, breathing in the soapy-sweat of him. “Everyone—everyone I’ve said that to is gone,” she says after a moment, her voice cracking. The nightmares are slipping back into her consciousness; everything that she had thought was gone with Rasputin.

He stills for a moment before turning onto his side and wrapping himself around her with a stilted hiss and groan of pain. Her leg slips across his hip; they’re pressed together from chest to ankle. “You can’t get rid of me that easily,” he says lowly into her ear, smoothing his hands through her hair and down her back.

She clutches at him, taking the promise for what it really is: a declaration. They fall asleep locked together, her head tucked under his chin.

*

In Gretna Green, they are married by a nice young pastor, and stay in the inn down the street from his home. It is a sunny bright afternoon, the dregs of winter melting away. It is one of the most beautiful places she’s ever seen, and she says so. Dmitri agrees easily. He likes to hold her hand in public, now that he can. Every time she brings it up, he blushes and flusters, and it makes her laugh and tuck his hand closer to her body.

At the inn, she wires Grandmama the news while Dmitri takes care of the room, and then counts their purse. The money she had brought with her is slowly dwindling, as is his, and the conversation they’ve been avoiding is approaching soon.

She still hasn’t said I love you, but then again, neither has he. It doesn’t change a thing.

Puka makes a bed in the bathroom of their rented room. In the dusky twilight of their wedding day, they stand at opposite ends of the room. Earlier, she had decided to wear the blue dress from the steamer to be married in, and her hair loose and curly; by the look in his eyes, she made the right choice. He looks handsome in his nicest suit from Paris, his hair slicked back.

“So,” he says after a moment.

She grins, tucking her hair behind her ears. “So.”

The room glows a warm purple-orange, the sun edging through the windows as it drifts below the tree line. Dmitri runs a hand through his hair, mussing it up. “I feel a little stupid.”

She laughs, breathing out a long sigh. “You should, with your hair like that,” she teases, walking across the floor towards him.

He frowns, meeting her half-way. “I thought you’d like it.”

“I do, you idiot,” she says, smacking his arm.

Grabbing her hand, he laces their fingers together. Their wedding bands, simple and silver and perfect, clink together. “This is good, though. You’re happy?” he asks. She thinks she can see the young kitchen boy in his eyes, unsure and valiant.

Not for the first time in the days since leaving Paris with him, she thinks of her Grandmama, of the crown and house and life she’d left behind. She knows her grandmother loves her, but this, the simplicity of him and their dog (because now, really, Puka is their dog) and their rings, it’s perfect. It’s all the family she’s ever wanted.

Instead of speaking, she leans up to kiss him. His mouth is familiar to her now, just as his body is. There is no pretense between them. His hand traces the line of her dress from breast to hip, the fabric bunching under his touch. The air thickens between them, warm and heady. She’s sure he can feel her heart beating through her chest.

“I love you,” he whispers into her mouth. “I love you.”

Her fingers curl into the collar of his shirt. Tears burn behind her eyes, and she blinks them back. The words bubble up in her throat, stayed by her own irrational fear.

Pressing his mouth along her jaw, he nudges her back towards the bed. She sits and pulls him down to her, edging up towards the headboard. His hands fall to the hem of her dress, pushing it up her thighs and over her waist. “I love this dress,” he murmurs.

She lifts her arms, letting him tug it over her head. “I know. Remember, you couldn’t tell that we’d stopped dancing?” she teases, slightly breathless. “You were all dizzy and off-balance.”

He tosses the dress to the floor, smirking down at her. “That was because of the ship.”

“No it was not!” she protests before he kisses her again, his hands firm and insistent on her body.

Everything is gentle and familiar and more. Their wedding bands reflect the dying light.

After, when they’ve freshened up and fed Puka and Dmitri’s fallen into a light sleep, she sits against the headboard and watches him. Her whole heart is full to bursting; the worry that one day she will wake up and he will be gone, through no fault of his own, creeps into her mind like Rasputin’s dreams.

Dmitri sighs in his sleep and throws his arm across her waist. She slips onto her back and tucks her head under his chin, just as she had that first night on the boat. But she still lays awake, counting his breaths and his heartbeats.

“You don’t have to ever say it back,” he says after a long while. His voice is low and rough in the darkness.

Her fingers flinch against his broad chest. His bruises have finally faded. “I want to,” she says, determined.

He kisses her hair, his hand smoothing down the line of her bare back. “Then you will. You haven’t met a thing yet you couldn’t do.”

“I think that was almost a compliment, Dmitri,” she teases.

“Shut up,” he mutters, and pulls her closer.

*

In the morning, over tea, Anya clears her throat and Dmitri sets his cup down.

“We’re having this talk now, huh?” he asks, looking a little resigned.

“Well, we should,” she says practically. Puka whimpers at their feet under their table in the small dining room of the inn. The sun from yesterday has fled, leaving Gretna grey and chilly once more.

“Okay then,” he says. “Well, we need work.”

“What will you do, now that you’re done scamming old women?” she teases.

He smirks. “Scam young ones.”

Seriously,” she says, throwing her napkin at him.

Batting it away, he leans his elbows on the table, his hair falling across his brow. “I say we go to London. Jobs are plenty, and it’s close enough to Paris that you can visit your grandmother if you’d like.”

She chews on her toast, nodding. “I like it. I’ll get a job, too.”

He glanced her over. “Doing what, exactly?”

Glaring at him, she sipped her tea. “Again, I grew up in an orphanage. They trained us in a lot of things,” she said pointedly. “We were all going to go out and get work when we were older, so they started us young.”

Her voice darkens, as it always does when she thinks of the orphanage, of her young charges still there. None of them would have this kind of a happy ending like hers, she thinks sadly.

Dmitri’s hand covers hers on the table. His ring gleams dully in the grey light of morning. “London it is.”

She smiles. “London it is.”

*

Anya gets a job at Harrods as a salesgirl in the Women’s Clothing department within two weeks of coming into London. It takes Dmitri a month, but he wheedles his way into a sales position with the London Times.

She writes her grandmother every week, and Sophie and Vlad every other week. Dmitri has no one to write to; instead he writes to her. He leaves her a note somewhere in the small flat every so often, telling her something about his day or something from his past. Their time together is often harried, and their schedules don’t always match up, but she is content and happy.

Of course, they fight. Sometimes it’s harmless bickering, and sometimes it’s more. Every so often she thinks of the money he gave up, of the life he might be living without her, and it eats at her. Combined with the sporadic nightmares and the fear of his never coming back one day, her temper sometimes gets the best of her.

When he walks out to cool off, she puts her energy into the flat. She wants it to be a space for the both of them, to live and love together. She likes fresh flowers on the table, and putting up bookshelves, and reupholstering a loveseat for their sitting room. It’s all the homey touches she couldn’t have at the orphanage, and she wouldn’t have had in the mansion in Paris.

In late May, a letter arrives from Vlad and Sophie, wishing Dmitri a happy birthday. He is at work when it arrives, and for long moments after, she sits at the kitchen table. She stares at the fresh irises and wonders how she could know him so well and yet not know his birthday.

It is her day off from Harrods, so she puts Puka on his leash and sets out into the rainy London streets. She has grown to love London in all its mistiness. It reminds her of her own life; everything before the orphanage is still clouded, with only certain memories sharp and focused.

When Dmitri arrives home, the flat is lit only with candles. Everything flickers and shadows cross the floor. She is still in the kitchen, stirring the stroganoff. Blinis with boysenberry sauce lay in wait for dessert. One night between Paris and Gretna Green, they had recounted all their favorite foods; she had catalogued every one of them, just as she had memorized the spray of freckles on his shoulder blades and the flecks of green in his dark eyes.

“Wow.”

She turns at the sound of his voice, smiling. “Hi.” Stray tendrils of her hair have escaped her hasty updo and now cling to her neck.

“What’s all this?” he asks, his hand going to his neck to loosen his tie.

Walking over to him, she slips her hands around his neck and kisses him. “I can’t cook for you?”

“This is intense, Anya,” he says, raising a brow. “You’re not…are you?”

He trails off, glancing towards her stomach. She rolls her eyes and walks back to the stove. Typical. “Don’t worry, you’ll know,” she says tartly.

Behind her, he sighs. “Okay, okay. I’m sorry.”

She glances over her shoulder at him, narrowing her eyes. “It’s your birthday, you idiot.”

His face slackens, all the curiosity leaving his gaze. “Oh. Yeah, I guess it is. Wow.”

Turning her attention back to the stove, she wrinkles her nose. “Anyway, I thought you might like this. Or not,” she says, feeling a little mutinous.

All of a sudden, he comes up behind her, his arms loose around her waist. His face tucks into the crook of her neck. “I do like it. You’re a domestic surprise, you know that?” he says, voice warm. His mouth curves into a smile against her skin.

“I can be domestic when I want to,” she mutters. “Don’t get used to it, though.” He does most of the cooking; it was the one thing she wasn’t very fond of.

“Oh, I won’t. I’ll treasure this. And maybe write Vlad about it, just to verify it for later generations.”

She stirs vigorously, shivering as his mouth moves along her neck. “God, you’re just lucky I love you,” she retorts.

His body stills. She sucks in a sharp breath and sets her spoon down.

That was not how she was going to say that.

But then he’s reaching in front of her and turning the gas off for the stove, and pulling her away from her pans. “Wait—“ she says helplessly as he turns her around.

“You said it,” he says, face flushed and eyes wide.

She shuts her eyes for a long moment before looking at him again. “Well, I told you I was going to,” she says crossly, her entire body hot.

He cups her face in his hands and kisses the breath from her. His hair brushes her forehead; he smells of London rain and wool. Her fingers burrow past his coat and jacket to his shirt, untucking it and searching out bare skin.

“You didn’t think I would, did you?” she asks breathlessly, his mouth inches from hers.

“For once, just shut up,” he murmurs and kisses her once more.

Much later, once Puka’s been taken out around the block in the spring rain, they have blinis in bed. London is cool and dark and damp around them. She kisses boysenberry sauce from his mouth and feels the solidity of him under her hands.

He isn’t going anywhere, and neither is she.

*