Nikolina left town as soon as she had recovered from the birth of Nadezhda, her young daughter.
She caught another train and went home. It felt strange repeating the journey again, this time holding Nadezhda in her arms and trying to soothe away the child's cries.
Not as weird as it seemed at the end of the journey, though, when she had to leave the train and trek back home. It seemed surreal, standing outside her family home and wondering how she would be received when she entered.
She knew they would welcome her home, of course. But how would she answer their questions? She had disappeared for nine months and now she was showing up on their doorstep with a baby in her arms.
She had never even told her family members that she was pregnant. How was she going to handle this?
There were two options that came to mind: She could tell them the truth, with all its uncomfortable emotions. That would be hard for her and it might also put her daughter in danger. If she shared her true identity with anyone, it could leak out and back to the Volkovs.
Maybe she was being paranoid there, but she couldn't bear the idea of her baby being hurt. That was why she hadn't put Antonin's name on her birth certificate. She hadn't mentioned him at all.
So she wasn't being entirely truthful, but the second option would take that much further. She could actively lie about her daughter's life. If no one except her knew that Antonin was Nadezhda's father, then the danger would be... Not gone, but minimised at least.
But how would she do that? She needed to get her story straight and tell everyone the same thing. And it had to be plausible. But she had never had another partner besides Antonin, so how would she make this convincing?
... Adoption! She could tell people she had been away to adopt Nadezhda. That would make sense. She nodded to herself. Alright, that would be the plan then. Time to put it into action.
She strode up to the door, trying to appear confident in spite of her nerves. Banging on the front door, she waited for a response.
Ilya answered. He opened the door calmly and then stared at her for a few moments. "Nikolina? You're back!" He smiled and moved to hug her before noticing the baby in her arms.
"Umm..." He didn't seem to know what to say. There was an awkward pause.
She tried to find the words to begin the lie. "Well, yes, I am back. And very, very glad to be!" She added honestly, "But I suppose I ought to explain. I have adopted, this is Nadezhda," She held up the baby.
Ilya looked down at his grandchild and smiled, "Lovely, Lina, but do you think I'm stupid?" He was suddenly serious again.
That threw her, "What? Of course not!" She spluttered.
"Then don't lie to me. Adopted?" He raised an eyebrow, "I don't believe that," He saw her panicked face and sighed, "It's fine, I understand. Come in and we can talk about it better."
Well, I'm clearly a terrible liar, Nikolina thought to herself as she followed him into the house. At least he didn't seem mad about it. Maybe he would help her come up with a better plan for keeping her daughter safe.
She dragged her bags in as well and dumped them in the hall, before trailing after her father again. Soon, she found herself sat opposite him at the dinner table.
"Well, whatever you need to explain, go ahead," He told her, sitting back and waiting patiently, his expression impassive.
Nikolina nodded, "Antonin and I found out we were having a baby the day that we got married. I thought I would wait to share the news when things were a little more settled and then when he died... I couldn't stay here. I felt as though I was in danger too and I was putting her in danger by staying. I don't trust those Volkov people to stay away... You haven't heard any more from them, have you?" She trailed off from her explanation to question him suspiciously.
"No, not since I made sure those two who broke in went to jail... But I think you're right not to trust them," He nodded.
"What to do you suggest I do about it then? Because I have tried so hard and all I have learnt is that I can't handle this alone!" She felt close to panic again as she threw those words at him.
Ilya shook his head, "I know. I don't think any of us can. That's why I've arranged police protection for us, just to be sure. I'll extend it to you and Nadya as well. Keeping her safe will have to be a priority. No doubt she'll be the number one target if they learn of her existence," He explained.
Nikolina nodded in agreement, "That is probably wise. Thank you," She smiled slightly, glad of his help. "Is there anything else that we can do to keep her safe?" She asked, still anxious.
"Hm..." He considered the question carefully, "Well, we should probably continue your plan and lie about her identity. The truth can be very dangerous. No one else should know, not even Sasha and Katya."
He sounded very grave and she nodded, understanding, "I know. But obviously, I am a rotten liar, how are we going to get them to believe all this?"
"I'll back you up, of course," He assured her.
And so, with her father's help, Nikolina settled back into her old life.
Ilya helped her with everything. He gave her back her old room until she found somewhere else to live, he helped her get her former job back and helped out with childcare when he could.
And, as promised, he helped explain her return and her new child to her siblings. Somehow, he made them accept it. Though she wasn't entirely sure that they believed it one hundred per cent. Katya was behaving oddly towards her.
But she ignored the brewing tension between herself and her sister, hoping it would come to nothing. She was just glad to be back with her family, all safe and sound.
She was grateful to her father for arranging protection for them. A part of her was still living in fear. But life did move on and with it, hope for a better future trickled into her life.
Mostly it came through changes. She got her old job back and worked hard for a promotion. She saved up her money and got a home for herself and Nadezhda. Living in her old room with a new baby and all the things she needed to care for her was getting hard.
She wouldn't have swapped it for another life though, even when it was painful to deal with the similarities between her deceased husband and her growing daughter. She still struggled to handle the grief of losing Antonin in any other way than shutting away her emotions completely, but Nadezhda helped her to feel better and to have hope.
She kept an emotional distance between her and her daughter, not wanting to get too close, only to lose her, but she already felt a deep attachment to the child and every day with her made her hopeful.
This little girl who seemed so carefree and so joyous might be tiny and helpless now, but who knew what she could grow up to achieve?
Sometimes, when her daughter laughed - Which she seemed to do a lot - It felt like she could do anything, change anyone's heart for the better and even change the whole world.
She was being silly, she knew she was. It was the sentimental stupidity of a loving mother. There was nothing in it. But she needed thoughts like that to help her push away her other feelings and get through the day without breaking down into tears.
So she would always speculate on the hopeful future, rather than the grim past.
That dark time, though it was not that long ago, was too much for her. She had to shut it out almost entirely to cope with it. And to keep safe. If she mentioned it to anyone, even in passing, she could be putting herself and her whole family in danger. Especially Nadezhda.
So she hid away the memories. She kept Antonin's old belongings blended in with hers around the house, so they wouldn't draw attention like they might if she suddenly got a skip and threw them all away,
But his old things were the only reminders of the dark past - Besides her daughter's resemblance of him - That she kept around.
She hoped that she had done enough to make the Volkovs forget about her and her family. And to make herself forget about the most painful part of her life.
She should have done. She had run, hidden and lied. She had got help and protection around her.
So that hopefully, her daughter would never have to suffer like this. She would never even have to know about it.