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St. Petersburg had changed.

It was something Feliks remarked upon every time he made the walk to the market. He remembered St. Petersburg so well, the real St. Petersburg, from childhood; the countless shops and houses, the bustling streets, the bright colours of the storefronts and the passers by and the vast, decadent expanse of the imperial palace. But there was no such brightness now; somehow it was as if the colour and the energy had drained from the city. The peasants now walked about in clothes that had either faded from years of over-washing in dirty water or were simply black or brown to begin with; half the storefronts were dark, windows broken and cleaned out of goods long ago, and the bulbous towers of the churches stood like dead husks among the smoke stacks, jovial colours that once shone in the sun having all but chipped away.

Feliks blamed the communists.

Of course, he could somehow trace a line from every pain and inconvenience in his life back to the communists. The continued shortages of commodities was definitely the communists, the damn bread lines were the communists, the plummet in the market for tailoring, communists. The checkpoints everywhere, the factory smoke that choked the air, communists, communists, communists. Hell, he remembered the frigid cold of winter from his imperial-era childhood and he still blamed it on the communists; though, he supposed, considering the number they’d done on him, the communists had definitely made the cold harder to bear.

And now they were screwing St. Petersburg again.

“Fucking Leningrad?” he almost threw the newspaper into the fire that he and some others had gathered around on the side of the street, seething. “Haven’t they violated St. Petersburg enough without taking her name, too?”

The young man who’d leant him the newspaper almost had a fit, snatching it from his hand as it came dangerously close to the fire. “Hey, you don’t get to burn it until you trade me those cigarettes.”

Cigarettes, good idea. “Take it back then,” Feliks snapped, brushing the kid off and pulling a cigarette from the case in his breast pocket. “I’m not paying for bad news anyway.”

Feliks nearly burned his hand trying to light his cigarette on the trash bin fire, but the drag he was rewarded with afterwards made it worth it. Savouring it for a moment, he exhaled slowly, peering through the blinding winter sun at a figure across the road, staring at him. The man wore a Bolshevik uniform, a gun and billy club at his side, and a warning in his eyes. Feliks only scowled at the man, begrudgingly tearing his eyes away and huddling closer to the fire. The officer seemed satisfied, glaring only a moment longer before continuing on.

“Some good news, then?” asked an older man by the fire once the officer had passed by, short and plump with a mess of gray whiskers poking up from a checkered scarf.

Feliks raised a brow. “What, did the regime decide to drive winter from Russia along with everything else that made her who she was?”

The man chuckled, and came closer, Feliks leaning over to he could whisper in his ear. “There’s a rumour that one of the Vasilievs may have survived the revolution.”

Feliks scoffed, standing to his full meagre height and rolling his eyes. “Is that so,” he said bitterly, pulling his coat tighter around him. “Who’s dull enough to believe that?”

“The Dowager Empress, apparently,” the old man smiled, “She’s offering a reward to whoever can find her granddaughter and bring her back to her.”

This time, both of Feliks’ eyebrows shot up. “Which granddaughter?”

The old man gave him a knowing smile. “The Grand Duchess Katerina.”

Feliks blinked, allowing a moment for the memories of that night, the girl who looked like an angel cornered by the window, the officer with the gun, the images of bodies and snow to pass over him before his usual vague scowl settled over his features again. “A fool’s errand,” he replied, crossing his arms, “There’s no way she survived. And even if she had, they would have tracked her down and gotten her by now.”

“Maybe,” the old man conceded, turning his attention to the road. “But it’s a fool’s errand with a reward of ten million rubles.”

Now that could get his attention, but nonetheless, it would be a wild goose chase. “One would think such a thing would have made it into the papers,” he replied, looking off in the same general direction as the old man.

“Please, with this government?” the old man laughed. “This is the same regime that slaughtered everyone who laid eyes on the Vasilievs for fear that the monarchists would rise up. They’d never allow information about a survivor to circulate.”

Feliks quirked his head; he supposed that was true enough. Hell, they wouldn’t even publish a word critical of Lenin - rumours that one of the Vasilievs might still be alive would definitely have resulted in the quiet murder of someone before the news had any chance to go public. But Feliks wasn’t worried. He knew Katerina was dead, but he’d entertain a rumour. Wasn’t as if he had much else better to do while he waited for that damn shopkeeper.

“So where, pray tell, was Grand Duchess Katerina meant to be hiding all these years if she did survive?” Feliks asked incredulously, “She certainly couldn’t have stayed in St. Petersburg, but where would a recognizable little girl, wanted by the Bolsheviks, have gone on foot in the middle of winter?”

The old man quirked a brow at the detail, but didn’t press on it. “Who knows?” he simply shrugged, “All I know is that the people of St. Petersburg may have something to buzz over again.”

Feliks frowned, twirling his cigarette between his fingers. “Well, I suppose we’ll see what comes of that,” he replied somberly, taking another drag.

The old man nodded, chuckling. “I suppose we will.”
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"Travel Visa?"

The innocuous question had come from a tall woman wrapped in a bulky coat that was poorly kept together. Her legs had been previously shaking underneath the makeshift leggings and short boots hastily tied together, heels together as her hands rested on the windowsill of the ticket window. Her bright, azure-colored eyes were wide, lips parted in surprise as she looked at the irritated older man on the other side. Her blonde hair sat in waves on her shoulders, brushed out of her face hastily as she tried to get a handle on what the man was so mad about at the moment.

After years of doing odd jobs, begging, selling anything she could get her hands on--including her own hair at various points--she had finally saved up just enough money for a ticket out of St. Petersburg. It had been a nearly life long dream to leave Russia, fueled by a desire she didn't quite understand herself. Not that she needed much reason to leave, really; things were steadily going downhill for years now. From a young age she had put herself to work, thriving on determination to get what she wanted, and with Nana Natasha watching her from heaven, she was certain she would accomplish her goal.

Except she had run into a minor hiccup when the moment of truth came.

"No travel visa, no ticket!" He informed her rather bluntly, apparently annoyed at her ignorance as he slammed a pair of shutters, effectively blocking her from any further questioning.

Placing her head against the closed window shutters, Katya let out a small whimper of despair as her hands clung onto her bag. She was so close. So, so close. As she pushed herself upright, she looked up at the sky. A miracle, she needed some kind of miracle that would give her the travel visa. This couldn't be the end of everything, there had to be something, anything she could do!

Wracking her brain for any possibilities, Katya backed away from the ticket window, deciding that there must have been another way she hadn't considered. A light tap on her elbow caused the girl to jump in surprise, whirling around as she saw an older woman chuckling at her. She had seen better days, her skin sagging and clinging onto her bones, though she clung onto some papers with one hand, prodding the girl as she beckoned for her to listen.

"If you have the coin, seek out Feliks Shvets," She told her in a quiet, shaky voice, motioning back towards the city. "Around this time, he should be getting more supplies at the stationary."

Katya's eyes widened, daring to hope as she listened intently to the woman. "How will I know it's him?" She asked.

"He sticks out almost as much as you do with that svetlyy hair of yours, though it will be his clothes that make him stand out," She teased, shaking her head hurriedly. "But you didn't hear it from me!"

Before Katya could ask any further questions, the old woman shuffled away in a hurry, the train whistling and indicating that it was time to board. Her journey wasn't over just yet; this was exactly the sign she was looking for. After taking a few seconds to stuff her money securely in her coat and thanking Nana Natasha for watching over her, the blonde immediately went about searching for the place where she could find the man that would give her the visa she needed. Fortunately, there were really only a few places that provided stationary these days that managed to survive over the years, narrowing her search tremendously.

Her heart raced in her chest as she approached the last place, rubbing her hands together as she exhaled. Boy, did she hate the cold. A slight shiver ran over her body as she stuffed her hands into her pockets, continuing to look for Mr. Shvet as she stopped in front of the store. It had yet to open, it seemed, though at least she wasn't alone. A few men had gathered around a makeshift trashcan fire, one holding a newspaper and another bearing a cigarette. She wrinkled her nose as the scent hit her, resisting the urge to roll her eyes. God, how she loathed that smell.

But apparently, the smoker had been the one she was looking for. His long, black wool coat was much too nice in comparison to what the other men wore, though she supposed they made up for his shoes. His pinstriped trousers and scarf seemed to add to the image of 'still too fancy', and that was when she realized that this was what the old woman had meant when she said he stuck out. Physically, there wasn't too much that stood out otherwise, though, her eyes lingering on his dark hair for a moment before remembering why she was there to begin with.

Tugging on the sleeve of his coat, Katya would speak to him. "Excuse me, I'm looking for Feliks Shvet."
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Feliks looked up from watching the fire when he felt a tug on his sleeve, expecting a child but interested to instead find a woman, only slightly shorter than him, looking for his attention. His eyes fell on her clothes first, as they always did, the man giving her a judgemental up-and-down look to take the outfit in. Ill-fitting pants, sloppy coat, altogether ratty-- Christ, it was hard to look at. But it was typical for the poorer of peasants, and he tore his eyes away after a moment of mild disapproval to actually look the woman in the eye.

And froze.

His eyes widened in disbelief, images from that night, and the night a year before that, crashing through his mind for the second time that morning; for the girl in front of him bore a shocking resemblance to the girl he’d seen all those years ago, the imperial princess he’d thought looked like an angel. From those striking azure eyes to her bright blonde hair and even down to the bone structure of her face, the resemblance (from what he could remember) was uncanny.

Recovering quickly, Feliks’ awe was replaced with mild contempt and he narrowed his eyes suspiciously, a familiar flash of resentment striking him. “Who’s asking?” he demanded sharply, turning slightly to ash his cigarette on the edge of the trash bin. “And what do you need Mr. Shvets for anyway?” He emphasized the 's' sharply, admittedly probably more rudely than the girl deserved, but Feliks wasn't overly concerned.
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His less than subtle once over immediately rubbed Katya the wrong way, the young woman's face momentarily contorting into a less-than-threatening scowl as she placed her hands on her hips. Granted, it wasn't the first, nor would it be the last, time that people looked at her like that. But what did they expect around here, nearly everyone was as tattered as she was! Except Mr. Fancy Coat. She supposed he did have some justification, but still, he could at least try to be more tact about it.

Of course, the man was full of surprises, his expression turning into one of shock. Her hands flew to her face immediately, assuming she had something on it to cause such a reaction, but he looked like he couldn't believe what he was seeing. She could see his gray eyes going over nearly every aspect of her face, and it hit her that maybe he recognized her! Her heart jumped up to her throat for a moment, staying quiet as an odd hope clung to her. She had to admit that his own face did bring this odd nostalgia, even if she couldn't quite pinpoint it. Actually, no, he reminded her a lot of a childhood friend from the orphanage.

But apparently, she was misguided in that hope; the contempt certainly matched his initial reaction to her, and she felt herself deflate slightly as he spoke again. Wait, maybe she was the one in the wrong, was it Shvet or Shvets? Hesitating for a few seconds, Katya furrowed her brow as she tried to remember what the woman said. Her memory wasn't exactly the best, causing her to doubt herself for just a moment. No, it was Shvets, she had been mistaken. But he didn't have to be so rude about it!

Still, she wasn't going to back away from her dreams just because of one jerk. "I was told Mr. Shvets--" She mimicked him and emphasized the 's' just as sharply as he did, though it was nowhere near as rude, coming off more for clarity purposes than anything. "--can help me out with a minor traveling issue I'm having." She dropped her hands from her hips, raising her left hand to push her hair off her shoulder as she watched him carefully. Maybe her initial assumption had been wrong, this guy didn't look helpful at all. "If you could just point me in the right direction, that would be fantastic."

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Feliks sized the girl up for a moment, taking another drag from his rapidly shrinking cigarette. “Travel issues?” he reiterated, quirking a brow, “What, are you looking to get past those lovely checkpoints to see your ailing mother in Moscow?” He laughed once, though there was no humour in it. “Because if that’s the story you came up with, I’m sure they’ve heard it before.”

This girl looked a little young to be racing off somewhere, but Feliks supposed he was a little young too, by that metric. Not that he felt young, and he certainly wasn’t as wide-eyed and open about it as this girl seemed to be. Still, something tugged at the back of his mind, that queer familiarity popping back into his head every time his eyes flicked back to the girl’s face. But he was being ridiculous. How could he possibly think to recognize this girl? Even if she did look like Katerina, how did he know that wasn’t just his mind taking the blonde hair and the blue eyes and projecting the rest? After all, she’d been a child when he’d seen her last, doubtlessly she would have changed more than his fleeting memory could predict. And surely there was more than one blonde, blue-eyed woman in Russia. But as much as he rationalized, he couldn’t quite get it out of his mind, the gears in his head beginning to turn.

Growing a little more serious and focusing on the task at hand, he finished off his cigarette with one long, drawn-out inhale, holding his breath for a moment before releasing it in a cloud of smoke and flicking the butt into the fire. “On the off chance you’re not a Bolshevik spy and you just need some travel documents, I can help you,” he finally conceded, stuffing his hands into his pockets. “For a fee, of course. Where do you need to go?”
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Momentarily confused by his assumption assumption, Katya hesitated for a moment. Moscow? Ailing mother? She supposed it shouldn't be surprising that people would just assume the worst, but it was the disdain he had as he spoke that irked her slightly. They were complete strangers, there was no need to jump to any conclusions just yet. Though she supposed it was a bit hypocritical, as she already assumed he was a huge jerk and wasn't going to be letting up anytime soon.

"I...don't really know if I even have a mother," Katya admitted slowly, tucking some of her hair behind her ear. "So if she's ailing I wouldn't know too much about that. Maybe she's alive, maybe she's dead...Who knows, I don't know much about my family so your guess is as good as mine."

Realizing she was getting off topic, Katya caught herself as she tried to rerail the conversation, clearing her throat. "Anyway, there was no story or anything, I have the money and just want to leave Russia. This is going to sound crazy, but I actually don't really know where I need to go. Anywhere is fine," Vague, perhaps, but she was driven enough to know that all this guy wanted was money. And as long as he didn't ask for anything insane, she could afford anything he asked.

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Feliks’ eyebrow raised again at the girl as she prattled on about her memories, or lack thereof. Odd, for sure, but even more odd that she felt the need to explain all of that to him. His comment about a mother in Moscow was just a common joke; visiting a dying family member was a common excuse used by people trying to convince the checkpoint officers to let them pass without the proper documents. “Right, good to know,” he commented flatly, absently digging in his breast pocket for another cigarette.

No sooner had he pulled it out, though, than he heard a little bell, and looked over to see that the damn shopkeep had finally opened up. Tucking his cigarette back into its case for later, he motioned with his head to the shop, looking to the girl. “Come with me.”

He didn’t wait for her to reply before he pushed off the wall he had been leaning on. When he moved, however, he really did stick out of the crowd; he walked with a pronounced limp, clearly favouring his left leg. He made a beeline for the shop door, grasping the door frame to climb the single step that led up to it. Once inside, he went straight to the counter, exchanging a brief greeting with the shopkeep, an older gentleman who seemed to still be getting everything set up for the day. Behind him were a number of shelves, with various varieties and colours of ink in bottles on display. Along the walls of the shop were numerous different types and sizes of paper, and even a few bound books, though considering the nature of the shop, they were probably blank. In lieu of talking to him further, Feliks simply handed the shopkeep a list, who took it and promptly set about finding whatever was on it.

Leaning gratefully against the counter, Feliks stifled a groan, shifting his weight so as to put as little on his left side as possible. Mornings were always a bitch for that hip, and standing still in the cold for half an hour certainly hadn’t helped. The inside of the shop was marginally warmer, but all he found himself longing for was another cigarette and a seat by the fire once he got back. For the moment, though, the girl’s odd request got him thinking.

“Anywhere is fine?” he repeated, a little incredulously. “Surely you have some idea of where you want to go. And I’ll need an actual destination if I’m going to help you with your problem. He and the shopkeep briefly met eyes, though a warning look from Feliks set the man back to work. Those damn gears in Feliks’ head were turning, but he didn’t want to run too far away with the Russian Circus on that bright idea just yet.

“Well, why are you leaving?” He asked, deciding to take some pity on the girl and help her out a little. Besides, if she made up her mind, he’d have a paying customer. “Are you looking for something? Want to do something? Or do you just want to escape the burning barn of a country that is great mother Russia?” His last suggestion was laced with no small amount of acid, Feliks’ face twisting up in disgust.
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Feliks wasn't turning her away, so Katya took it as a good sign. His comment was dismissive, but he wouldn't have told her to follow him if he wasn't going to help. Alright, looks like she was making some progress! The blonde visibly relaxed, nodding as he told her to follow him, though her expression fell as she watched him walk. Well, not walk; it looked like he was having some difficulty, surprising her with the speed of which he limped. It didn't look like he was injured, and she didn't notice him minding it too much. Maybe something from the past? A prick of pity hit her, though she snapped out of her thoughts as she realized she was being left behind.

Entering the shop, she followed Feliks almost dutifully, though her eyes wandered the shop briefly. It had been some time since she had shopped for--actually, she had not shopped in general in some time. Anytime she had entered a place it had usually been to either ask for work or fulfilling some errand for pay. Still, something about the place was interesting to her, sparking her curiosity until she would come to a stop behind Feliks.

His expression caught her attention as he leaned against the counter. Something about him being in pain pulled at her heartstrings, regardless of how he spoke to her. No one deserved to be in pain. As he inquired about her destination, Katya shifted her weight from one leg to another, giving him a half-hearted shrug. "Well, you're right. I don't need to go anywhere, but if I'm being honest, I want to go to Paris," She confessed, frowning once again.

Teetering on deciding whether or not to give him the whole story, she exhaled a heavy sigh, gesturing towards outside. "It's as good a place to start as any, since I'm searching for someone. And as far as I'm aware, they're no longer in Russia," Katya informed him, the certainty in her voice slowly dissipating the longer she went on. And now for the part that usually made people give her that look. "Don't ask me how I know that, though. Because I actually have no idea who they are or if they're still waiting for me in Paris, but...I know they're not here. So that's why I need those papers." She braced herself for his reaction, watching him somewhat warily.
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Paris? Jeez, good thing he got that out of her. That was a bit of a bigger deal than Moscow, but luckily it wasn’t anything Feliks hadn’t done before. It certainly was strange, though, to have a peasant girl looking to go to Paris; she didn't look like she had much money to spare, and from what he'd heard it wasn't a cheap city. Maybe she’d scrounged together enough money for a train ticket, but what did she expect to do once she was there? Granted, most of what he knew about Paris was that it was a popular destination for fleeing nobility after the Bolshevik takeover, and he still got the occasional former Imperial court member or miscellaneous aristocrat feeling the pressure and wanting to get out, people who had managed to hide some amount of wealth from the communists and could afford to start a new life somewhere they’d be respected. And they were usually being forced to leave, knowing they’d be executed if the Bolsheviks got wind of who they were, but this girl simply wanted to leave. Curious indeed.

By the sounds of it, this girl was as confused as he was. Searching for someone in Paris, but she didn’t know who…

Feliks almost tsked at himself before he realized how insane that would make him look. Of course, he was crazy even thinking that. She was a paying customer with blonde hair and blue eyes, nothing more.

“Well, that’s certainly something,” he commented finally, turning his gaze to the shopkeep as he finished gathering the items Feliks had requested. They didn’t need to exchange words, quite familiar with the process at this point; Feliks simply slid the money across the counter, trading it for his purchases.

“Anyway, whatever the reason, I can help you,” he continued, shoving off the counter with his paper bag of items in hand. “Come with me, I’ll see if I have any documents for Paris ready. I’ll also need your name.” With that he started out the shop and down the street, not so much as checking to see if she was following as he limped along at the briskest pace he could manage, eager to get the hell out of the cold and wondering if he’d have to re-stoke the fire when he got back.
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Wow, what a tame response.

Well, it was better than the alternative, either outright disbelief or mocking her naivete. For the moment she was just glad she wouldn't have to hear about her impossible task, already knowing she had her work cut out for her. The sooner she got started, the better; the details could always be sorted out later on. Katya watched Feliks nervously as he paid, the seconds between that and him speaking once again stretching out for much longer than they probably were, but she could have cried in happiness as he mentioned he could help her.

Unable to contain her grin, the blonde bounced in place before setting off, following Feliks as he led the way. Just the thought of getting to Paris sooner than later was enough to invigorate her, albeit the cold wind threatened to ground her back into reality as it bit at her face. Muttering a comment about the bitter cold, she was surprised at how fast he was moving, but she guessed he wanted to get out of the cold just as much as she did.

Glad his questions would distract her from the weather, Katya paused for a moment. "My name? Oh, right, yeah. I'm Katya," She pulled her collar a little higher around her neck as a wind slapped her face, huffing out a breath of irritation. "You're taking me somewhere warm, right? I can't stand the cold." She couldn't help but whine, already wishing she could have nabbed another scarf for warmth.

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Katya, eh? Another coincidence. “I’ll need your last name too,” Feliks stated, rounding a corner onto a narrow street. There were a few more trash bin fires here and the odd beggar; folks usually preferred to gather away from the main drag, where the communist officers didn’t patrol quite as frequently. Feliks barely noticed them, continuing doggedly on.

That damn wind always found a way to sneak into his coat, even more chilling now that they were no longer directly in the sun. “It better be warm,” he grumbled at Katya’s second question, rolling his eyes at her complaining. He felt the same way, of course, but he wasn’t so naive to think anyone else cared. In any case, if it wasn’t warm when they got back, he’d be quick to fix that if it killed him.

He comforted himself as they trudged on through the cold with the thought of finally being able to sit down by the stove, each little jolt of pain in his hip motivating him to move a little faster. Fortunately the market wasn’t too far from their destination, though the last leg of the trip did involve walking across a large square open to the wind, much to Feliks’ displeasure.

Feliks hardly looked up as they reached their destination, though it really was quite a sight: None other than the imperial Winter Palace, massive and commanding, spreading seemingly endlessly out to either side with the Neva flowing behind it. In the time since the revolution, the Palace Square in front of it had somewhat filled in; a little homeless encampment here, a merchant touting wares there, much of the area in disarray. The palace wasn’t much better; while from a distance it looked impressive - and its size alone was still a marvel - it, too, had fallen into disarray, the gleaming white, green and gold exterior having largely faded and chipped away. Parts of it were either collapsed or burned out, and only a few of the higher windows had escaped smashing from the stones of children and loyal communists.

The doors and windows on the ground floor were all boarded up, but Feliks wasn’t headed there, anyway. He led Katya along the edge of the square to the side of the palace, making a beeline for a window with a larger gap than most between the boards. “This way,” he instructed, placing a hand on the lower board and giving it a few downward jolts until it slammed down, pivoting on a nail on one end as the other moved freely. Leaning in with a muffled groan, he set his bag of purchases inside the gap before following it, bending to slip between the boards. He struggled slightly to lift his left leg inside, but managed, gesturing for Katya to follow before stooping to pick up his bag.
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Last name? Katya stayed quiet for a moment, at a loss for what to say. Should she just be honest? Probably, she had no idea what kind of excuse to even make. Still, she was distracted by the sight of the decaying palace. For just a moment, Katya actually stopped in her tracks, eyes wide as she looked around. She was often told as a child to keep away from the place, and for good reason considering what had happened there. Seeing it from a distance and suddenly getting close struck a nerve, making her feel like she was doing something she shouldn't be.

Realizing that Feliks was getting ahead, she shook off the thoughts as she hurried to catch up. Unfortunately her old caretaker wasn't around anymore to scold her for being near the palace, nor was she a child anymore. Besides, getting inside to avoid the damn chilly wind was her current priority, the woman wincing as another wind blew around them. God, how she hated the cold. Maybe after she found what she was looking for in Paris she could then find a home somewhere warm where she would never have to worry about winter again.

Watching Feliks open up a way inside, the blonde found it rather odd, a little amused by the makeshift entrance. Well, whatever worked out, she supposed. As she carefully climbed in, she was happy that the wind was no longer an issue, though as she saw Feliks stoop to pick up his bag, she quickly knelt down, picking it up for him.

"Here," She offered the bag to him before she decided to address his previous question. "As for the last name...I don't know." She probably should have taken it more seriously, but she found herself more curious to the condition of the interior of the palace. "You can probably put anything, your guess is as good as mine." She said, more interested in looking around.

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Feliks made no secret of the glare he leveled on Katya when she beat him to his bag, taking it from her with a bit of a yank and a warning look. He’d never been fond of people trying to do things for him - pity wasn’t something he enjoyed - but he definitely didn’t like this stranger touching his things, especially considering how God damn expensive they were.

Noticing that Katya wasn’t paying any attention to him, he turned back to the makeshift entrance. Holding his bag under one arm, he grabbed a jut-out nail with his free hand and yanked the board back up, pulling on it several times to make sure it was wedged in place. Not exactly intruder-proof, but it closed up enough that people usually didn’t bother with it. Popular opinion was that the palace had been totally looted out years ago anyway; all people used it for now was shelter from the weather. Those who didn’t think it was cursed or haunted, anyway.

Feliks’ entrance opened into one of the smaller ballrooms of the palace, though ‘small’, of course, was a relative concept. Really it was a bigger and more lavish space than most Russians would ever see, a long rectangular expanse of white marble floors covered with large swaths of fading red and gold carpet. The carpet had been torn up and cut away in places, and rotted out in others near the windows, but there was enough of it left for one to imagine how it might have looked when it was new. The room itself was three storeys high, some light streaming in from the upper floor windows, peeking through between tall white pillars dressed at the tops in gold. Reliefs of the imperial crest were everywhere, and every exquisite detail was accented in gold -- at least, that’s how it would have looked in its heyday. Now the paint had chipped, there was water damage trailing down from every window, and everything had lost its gleam under a decade of dust.

Paying mind to none of it, Feliks led Katya to a small, hidden side door, opening into a narrow and much more plainly constructed hallway. A servant’s hallway, the routes of which Feliks still remembered. This one led to the kitchens, and the servants’ quarters beyond that, nearer the interior of the palace. He’d chosen a spot down here so as to be away from the windows and in a small enough room that it wouldn’t be impossible to heat; of course, the fact that there were no stairs along the way was a bonus.

He lead the way without thinking, eventually ducking into a door, which he waited to close behind him until Katya was inside. The room was indeed small compared to the rest of the palace, sized to house a few servants at a time. Two bare bed frames were pushed against one wall, mattresses and sheets stripped away, while a third was against the wall nearest the fireplace, mattress old but intact and piled with mismatched sheets and blankets. On closer inspection, the room actually seemed to all be arranged in relation to the fireplace, a plush armchair with only the occasional well-repaired tear pushed up about as close to the hearth as it reasonably could be without catching fire, and a small table and chair not far off.

Farther from the fireplace, along the opposite wall, was a larger, longer table, strewn with documents. Nearby, what looked like a window, popped out of its frame, was sat horizontally across two boards at table-height, a small assortment of kerosene lamps arranged underneath. Finally, a shelf on the same wall as the door bore books and more trappings of document-making, all carefully stored away from the fireplace.

“Welcome,” Feliks grumbled unenthusiastically, pausing only long enough to put his bag on the table before making a beeline to the fireplace. He was delighted to find that while the flame had gone out, the embers were still hot, giving off a merciful heat and ready to be rekindled. Kneeling in front of the hearth with some difficulty, he reached for the poker with one hand, fishing a few chunks of coal out of a bucket with the other. He stirred the embers up, coaxing the lower, hotter ones to the surface and letting the air get to them, before tossing on the new coal.

“So, you don’t know your last name?” He asked, not looking up from his work. He poked and prodded at the fire a little more, arranging and rearranging the embers until the new coal finally caught. “I must say, that’s a new one, but I suppose we can always make one up. You’ll already be using illegal documents, what more is a false name?”

He stared into the fire a moment longer, scooting up as close as he dared on his knees and holding his hands to it, before he finally looked over to Katya. “But, out of sheer morbid curiosity, how do you not know your last name?”
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God forbid she give the man a hand, did he really have to glare at her like that? Once Feliks' back was turned she threw her own scowl at him, turning her attention back to the palace, or at least what remained of it. It was so bizarre to see the place in such shambles, shattering the expectations she had of it. Maybe she had set her expectations too high, letting the rumors and her imagination run away with the images she had in her head. The clash between her idea and reality was jarring as she looked around, often having to remind herself that it had been years since the siege, that she shouldn't have been surprised to see the place in such disarray.

That didn't make it any less sad, though.

Trailing behind the man, Katya let her curiosity wander until she could feel the difference in temperature; it was subtle at first, but even the slightest bit of warmth was such a massive relief compared to the bitter cold. The room was curious, a little more organized than she had anticipated, her eyes lingering on the documents for a moment before realizing that Feliks was speaking to her. Frowning slightly, she decided to shelf her curiosity in favor of warming herself a bit, approaching somewhat cautiously until she sat down on the floor, rubbing her hands together.

She didn't respond right away to his questions, huddling close to the warmth before letting out a sigh. "A false name is fine with me. In all fairness, it's not like I know my first name, either. For all I know I could be Tania or Maria..." Katya shrugged, happy to have the feeling back in her fingertips again as she rubbed her cold cheeks. "Everyone just called me 'Katya' and I didn't exactly know who I was, so I just went with it."

After feeling the color in her face returning, she realized that she hadn't explained herself too well. Looking at Feliks as she rubbed her knees, she gave him a shrug. "I don't actually know my name or where I come from. My Nana told me that one of the nurses found me in an alley nearly frozen to death after the siege. She brought me back and they managed to save me...or that's what I was told, I wouldn't be able to really tell you anything more than that. It's all pretty fuzzy, I really only remember the things after that: being raised by Nana Natasha, getting scolded by Yelena, playing with Grisha and the boys..." She trailed off for a moment, a somewhat wistful smile on her face.

After a few seconds Katya brought her knees up to her chest, rubbing her legs as she finished her story. "So...yeah. Amnesiac and without a clue about my past or my family," She concluded rather cheerfully all things considered. "I'm hoping that Paris has a hint or something; I'll find my mystery person, I'll find my family, I'll find who I am, and everything will be alright. It's my master plan!"
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Jesus, she was chatty. Feliks had been expecting some simple, unrevealing “I’m an orphan” answer, not a life story. Not to mention the sickening optimism. He would have envied her her naivete if he didn’t think it was so foolish. Of course, as he listened, admittedly intrigued by Katya’s memory loss, his mind couldn’t help but wander to the possibility…

“A lot of children were lost in the siege,” he said absently, eyes on the fire. Nearly frozen to death in an alley, huh? He supposed he could relate, though his circumstances immediately after the siege had also involved a pile of corpses and a gunshot wound.

There was a silence between them for a moment, Feliks turning his options over in his mind. He knew it was foolish, and impossible, but he simply couldn’t keep Katya’s eerie resemblance to Katerina from his mind. But Katerina was dead, he was sure of it. So why did he keep wondering if it was possible?

He supposed the ten million rubles might be part of it.

But it was ridiculous! What, was he meant to believe that God happened to smile upon him today, inform him of the reward offered by the Dowager Empress and then just drop a reincarnated Katerina in his lap? Preposterous. She was dead, long dead, along with the rest of the Vasilievs. Along with his mother, and every other innocent soul the Bolsheviks thought deserved to die that night. That reward was just the last remnant of desperate hope from a heartsick old woman in Paris.

“...I’ll see about those papers,” Feliks said finally, grasping the arm of the chair by the fire and using it to hoist himself painfully back to his feet. He clenched his jaw with the effort, but held in his usual groan, not one to complain around company. Already stiff from having been kneeling, his limp was a bit more pronounced than normal as he made his way over to his shelf, pulling out a folder and flipping through some delicate-looking documents within. Feliks stared intently at them, thinking. She needed a permanent exit visa to Paris, fine, but that meant she needed a passport to attach it to, which meant she needed a picture and a full name, information on her date and place of birth, occupation, marital status, all manner of overbearing government-required personal details. From someone who remembered none of it. Excellent.

They were just going to have to get creative.

He fingered through some other documents on his shelf, grateful to find a blank copy of a passport document ready to go. “I’ll need some more information from you - we might need to fabricate a lot of it - and you’ll need to get your picture taken,” he explained, not looking over. He pulled a few more things from the shelf and crossed over to the document-strewn table, sitting gratefully at it. “I know someone who can do that for you, though he doesn’t work for free. Once that’s done, I can have your documents completed in about a day.”

Finally he looked up, over his shoulder at the girl by the fire. “Are you living nearby? You won’t want to go too far.”
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Feliks' silence was a little concerning, but he wasn't calling her crazy, so that was a step in the right direction. As the silence stretched between them, she made sure to follow his lead and stay quiet as well. Not that she was complaining, it wasn't uncomfortable, he was probably just as focused as she was on warming up. The blonde was greatly enjoying the break from the cold with a forlorn sigh of happiness. She had half a mind to curl up on the floor and sleep, the idea of having a warm nap greatly enticing the woman as she hugged her knees. If she caught on fire, so be it, at least she would die warm and not frozen.

Once he would speak, Katya perked up with hopeful eyes. Maybe this meant she would be leaving sooner rather than later! She stayed where she was, turning to watch as he would make his way over to the shelf, curious to see what he was doing. Not that she knew; she had no idea how he would go about giving her the paperwork needed, but she wasn't going to question it. The less she knew, the better, anyway.

At his comment of having to fabricate the information, she gave him a shrug. Not like she had much choice; she didn't know anything, anyway, so it was best to do as he said. She did, however, brighten up immensely as he mentioned he would be able to have everything ready in a day. He was fast! She nodded enthusiastically, though she hesitated as he mentioned the picture-taker-man wouldn't take it for free. Well, she did anticipate this costing her something, so hopefully it wouldn't set her back too much.

"I usually spend the day doing odd jobs, but I can just stay here for today if it's easier for you," Katya said, her eyes wandering once again around the unfamiliar room. Actually, as long as she was here, she wouldn't mind exploring the place. "I'm going to take a look around the place." She wasn't entirely sure why she was even telling him, but the room alone wasn't enough to satiate her curiosity, her now-warmed legs energetic enough to at least take a peek back the way they had come.
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“Have at it,” Felikes replied unenthusiastically, looking back down at the table and moving to clear some of the clutter away. Good, she’d get out of his hair for a while. Good thing too, he needed to focus. It was lucky that he had a blank passport ready, but his forged visa stamp had seen better days - precisely the reason he had gone to the stationery. He needed to carve a new one, and it would take up the bulk of the day’s estimate he’d given Katya to do. It had to be perfect, after all; he inwardly groaned at the prospect, already dreading hours of testing and tweaking that lay ahead of him.

“Oh, word of warning,” he mentioned before Katya was gone, “The building isn’t always stable. And I can’t finish this until you get your picture taken, so make sure you come back and get the photographer’s address before you leave. And try not to get lost.” There was more boredom in his voice than actual concern, and he barely looked up from unpacking his purchases. But it was an important warning nonetheless; he wasn’t a complete jackass, and he also didn’t want to lose a paying customer. Besides, he didn’t need to come across a corpse on his way through the place anytime soon.
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"No promises on that last one," Katya replied rather cheekily, giving Feliks a rather lazy wave once she was sure he wouldn't say anything else.

The warning was probably appreciated, but she figured exploring was better than sitting there watching. The palace had this allure about it, a forbidden place that she had always wanted to unravel, to see why it was always off-limits. Nothing in particular seemed to stand out as she traversed the hall, the previous sadness of seeing the place in shambles returning as she looked around. In its day, everything was probably sparkling, filled with light and bustling with people. The brown carpets were probably red at one point, her muffled footsteps being the only thing that accompanied her through the halls.

The cold returned the further she went, though it still wasn't as bad as it was outside, thankfully. Katya walked comfortably, her pace slow as she looked around for...something. Her lips curved into a frown as that thought crossed her mind, wondering why it even came to mind. Being here was becoming confusing, stirring some odd feelings within her. Maybe she was the daughter of a servant? Well, they had executed anyone associated with the royal family, so she could understand why she was forbidden to approach the palace. But that didn't seem right, like she was missing something.

Turning the corner into another hall, the faded architecture suddenly improved. Still in shambles, but the quality shifted even in its disarray. As she looked back to where she came from, she wondered if maybe she had come from the servants' quarters. So if she kept going, she'd reach where the royal family lived. The realization didn't sit too well with her, azure eyes darting around for something as an unfamiliar anxiety popped up.

Go! Get out of here!

Clearing her head of that thought, she ignored that odd feeling as she continued onwards through the hall. It opened to what looked like what could have been a grand ballroom. It was huge and empty, the windows barely hanging onto the hinges as the wind threatened to further crack the glass. A large tapestry had managed to hang onto the wall, albeit in disarray with a majority of it having been stabbed or torn. There was a rather thick layer of dust on the floor and on what little furniture remained; there was no reason to be here, nor did it have anything to offer. Disappointing, but what was she expecting? The palace had been abandoned for years, it was surprising that Feliks had chosen to take refuge here, anyway.

Deciding that she should probably stop wasting her time, Katya turned back to go the way she came, stopping before the tapestry. Two adults, one man and one woman, were surrounded by five children, four girls and one boy. The man's face had been left a mystery, the area surrounded his head having been torn to shreds, though it chilled her to see that the tears didn't look as old as they should have. Part of the woman's face had been obscured as a result, though the children's faces were mostly intact. Their hair colors were all on the lighter side, with the youngest girl's locks being a bright blonde color and the oldest girl sporting a sandy color.

Katya couldn't stop looking at the tapestry, her hand gently touching it. Her heart was racing in her chest, eyes glued to the oldest girl. Why?
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With Katya gone, Feliks relaxed a little, not realizing how tense the woman was making him until after she left. He took the opportunity to light a cigarette, allowing himself a moment to appreciate it before setting to work.

He ended up burning through a few cigarettes once he set to work, tapping the ashes into the metal cup that he used as an ashtray without even glancing up, so focused was he on his task. Stamps were a tedious pain, yes, but there was a certain challenge to them as well. Transferring the image onto the new block was a more complicated process than one might think, and the great attention to detail one needed while carving it out was something Feliks took to rather easily. Of course, that didn't stop him from growing irritated at the increasing soreness in his shoulders and back as he hunched over the damn thing, the stubbornness of the rubber, or the fact that he had to pace himself on the cigarettes if he was going to last out the rest of the week before he could get his hands on more.

Eventually he decided he needed to take a break from stamp making before he threw his project - a particularly difficult one, apparently - into the fire. Setting the in-progress stamp aside, he finally leaned back in his chair, numerous joints popping as he stretched. Fishing his watch from his pocket, his eyes widened when he saw the time; Jesus, had it really only been an hour since he started? He could have sworn he'd been working longer than that.

He frowned at the fireplace, finally noticing the gathering cold as the embers within darkened. Stiffly he stood, groaning irritably, and crossed to the fireplace with some difficulty to toss some more coal in, scowling at the smell. He hated coal fires, but coal was cheaper than wood, and short of tearing down other parts of the palace, he wasn’t sure where he’d find it anyway. Still, that sharp twinge of sulfur was something he couldn’t wait to be rid of once he found a way out of this place. If he ever did.

Sitting on the arm of his fireside chair (easier to get up that way), he supposed he might as well get to work on Katya’s passport document. Of course, even though they’d apparently need to fabricate a lot of her information, he still needed Katya for that. Was she still wandering around?

He stood more easily than he would have had he sat in the chair properly, and made his way to the door, sticking his head out and frowning at the cold in the hallway beyond. “Katya?” he called, looking up and down the hall as his voice echoed. “Katya!”

He waited a few minutes for the woman to produce herself, but there came no reply. With a long sigh, Feliks pulled on his coat and set out down the hall, looking for her.

It took about fifteen minutes, but it turned out that the thick layer of dust on the palace floors served as a useful guide; Katya’s footsteps were recorded in them clear as day, and though it was a little frustrating to have to follow her meandering path, Feliks eventually found his way to one of the larger ballrooms. In his head he’d dubbed it the Tapestry Room, and as luck would have it, that was the very thing drawing Katya’s attention now.

Feliks made no attempt at subtlety as he crossed the ballroom floor, though he came to a halt at the bottom of the carpeted stairs leading up to the tapestry, looking up at Katya as she studied it. Leaning against the banister, Feliks pulled a cigarette and a matchbook from his pocket, lighting up before he spoke. A small personal reward for walking all the way over.

“Are you done exploring?”
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Her hand reached towards the older girl's face, Katya's eyes trained on the tapestry. Looking at its state made her terribly sad, wondering how this could have happened. Or rather, what exactly happened. She was sure if she asked around she could get them, but did she want to know? Was it her business? Taking her hand off of the tapestry, she tried to make sense of her thoughts, wondering why this place stirred the strangest thoughts, ones she couldn't bring herself to properly understand and filling her with an insatiable curiosity.

Feliks' voice caused Katya to jump, the blonde whirling around immediately as her azure eyes were wide. She would have screamed if she hadn't been so frightened, her hand clutching her chest as she had to take a moment to remember how to breathe. Good God, did he have to sneak up on her like that?! There was a small part of her that wondered how she hadn't heard him coming, but she had just been so absorbed in her thoughts that she just plain didn't hear him coming.

As she opened her mouth to retort, she was hit with the smell of tobacco, causing her to hesitate before she would let out a sigh. Of course he was a smoker, but did he really need to do it indoors, too? Taking in a slow breath to steady herself, she leveled a look at him. "I was just admiring the tapestry when you decided to come along," Katya replied dryly, shaking her head. "Were you trying to give me a heart attack, or do you normally like to sneak up on all your clients?" She probably shouldn't have been so curt, but his smoking displeased her greatly.
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