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Whatever Our Souls Are Made Of

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“Let me.”

It’s a strange thing for Alina to hear those words from his lips. The Darkling—no, Aleksander—has never been one to ask permission for anything. Well, almost anything.

Alina, can I come to you tonight?

She’d wanted to say yes back then, but Baghra’s warnings had planted the seeds of uncertainty, and fear had taken root in her heart.

Now, with Aleksander’s hot mouth on her neck the only thing Alina fears is her own flimsy self-control.

“It isn’t real,” he murmurs against her skin, his voice uncharacteristically desperate. “Let me.”

It’s real enough, Alina thinks but doesn’t say, her head tipping back, eyes rolling skyward. There’s a tug in her scalp as Aleksander winds his hand roughly in her hair where it hangs loose down her back. He holds her fast there, neck arched, pale throat inviting. His lips find the pulse point under her jaw and she shivers, an answering pulse throbbing between her legs.

On some level Alina knows that she is really hundreds of miles away, lying in her room in Nikolai’s mountainside hideaway. But her body has never felt more present and alive than it does in this moment, in Aleksander’s room, as his thighs tighten on either side of her, drawing her flush against him where he sits on the edge of his desk.

The sense of danger that had fortified her resistance before melts away as he guides her arms around him. Her palms splay across his bare back and the flesh-to-flesh contact opens the connection between them. Comfort and rightness and a razor-sharp physical awareness rush in until she feels full to bursting with light and warmth. And hunger.

She hadn’t come here with the intention of, well, this. Whatever this is.

She’d been tired, despondent, defeated after another loss. Lying in a strange bed in a strange room, she’d been fending off her demons, trying to summon a pleasant memory, a happy thought. Anything.

Without really thinking about it she’d wound up here, with him. At first, she’d been angry at herself, her own weakness and the predictability of her treacherous heart.

Back at the Spinning Wheel, Nikolai’s ring is still clutched in her hand, heavy with the weight of her responsibilities. She should’ve turned back the moment she recognized her surroundings. The moment she saw him.

But, not for the first time, Alina’s ability to think clearly, to think rationally, had crumbled at the barest hint of Aleksander’s touch.

She sighs, curling her fingers into his back, her nails biting into the pliant give of his skin. His hand untwines from her hair so she can lift her face to his.

It’s hard to get her bearings when he’s this close. Her lips tingle at the warm gust of his breath, near enough that she can taste him.

Can, but shouldn’t.

What would Mal say if he knew what she was doing? He’d be angry, betrayed. He’d call her weak, insist that the Darkling is a monster whose apparent regard for her has never been anything more than manipulation. A predator cleverly camouflaged among his quarry. The moment Alina lets her guard down he’ll bare his fangs and she’ll be lost.

When Aleksander finally kisses her, though, Alina knows she’s been lost all along. There was never any doubt that he would reach out to her, even less that she’d reach back.

This is the way it is between the two of them, an inexorable attraction that accompanies their every meeting. And if finally giving in means falling prey to his designs, then she’s happy to be devoured.

He slants his mouth over hers with a groan, the stubble of his short beard abrasive against her lips. The desperation she’d heard in his almost pleading voice before is echoed in the way he holds her now, the way he kisses her open-mouthed and needy.

Alina has always been able to feel him through their bond—not just the heightened physical awareness but his thoughts, his emotions. Just now she can feel her own reckless want reflected in him. He’s overcome by it, as blinded to the foolishness of their actions as she is. All the intervening months between now and the last time he held her lend a fervor to his embrace. A gratitude. He’s wanted her so much for so long, all of it culminating in the way his arms bracket her to him, the way his kiss is equal parts strong and sweet, his reluctance to pull away even for a moment to breathe.

There is no finesse in it, but Alina prefers it that way, she thinks, as she parts her lips in welcome, accepts the velvet slide of his tongue. The ordinarily composed and calculating Aleksander abandons all artifice when they’re together this way. His kisses are messily passionate, his hands roving all over her and always grasping just a bit too tight. There’s something thrilling about it, knowing that the Darkling is so unmanned by her. Alina likes the way she looks through his eyes: powerful, alluring, irresistible.

She’d never really felt that way before their acquaintance. Spending so much of her time in Mal’s shadow, she’d been uncertain and unassuming.

Sometimes she still catches herself trying to settle back into those old patterns. Days when the attention and expectations of the Sun Summoner are too much for her to carry on her skinny shoulders. Between Nikolai’s political aspirations and Mal’s thinly veiled jealousy Alina often feels more like a tool or a symbol than a woman, her powers something to be used or rejected. 

For better or worse, it’s only with Aleksander that she finds her center. With him, she doesn’t need to put on a performance, to present her abilities in a manner comforting and inspiring to the common people. With him, she doesn’t have to hold herself back lest she frighten him with the magnitude of her power.

It’s because he understands. We are alike, he’d said once, the chapel swarming with nichevo’ya. As no one else is, as no one else ever will be.

How right he’d been.

Who else could understand the awful potential of her power, the ability to lay waste to mountains, turn night into day? The raw energy always pulsing in her fingertips, tingling to be loosed like a snake coiled to strike.

Who else could understand the way people worship and fear her, view her as something other—deific and frightful? The paradoxical isolation that comes with their devotion.

Who else could understand immortality, a limitless future, the absolute certainty that lest she suffer a violent death, Alina will live to see her loved ones perish, to bear witness to all the ages of the world? How long has Aleksander borne that terrible knowledge? How long has he feared the infinite future, and with it, infinite solitude?

It’s that shared pain and possibility that heightens the intimacy between them. It’s why, heedless of the war dividing them, the memory of his cruelty freshly seared on her heart, Alina just gives herself over to it.

Her hands smooth up over the muscled breadth of his back, his shoulders, until her fingers slide into his silken hair. Lovely, dark hair that she’s always admired in spite of herself. Alina returns his kiss fervidly, savoring the familiar taste of him on her tongue.

It’s nice, especially after all this time, all the self-denial and energy she expended forcing herself to hate him. But all too quickly, kissing him simply isn’t enough. The persistent longing between them escalates as it always has until Alina can feel herself shoving her hips brazenly against him. At this point she’s half considering just climbing into his lap altogether. It’d be so easy then, to unlace his trousers, hike up her skirts and bare herself for him.

But he releases her before she can, scooting off the edge of the desk and to his feet.

His height is more apparent when he stands over her, a triumphant smile on his kiss-reddened lips. He looks impossibly tempting, hair mussed, black eyes glinting in the firelight. Alina is momentarily frozen by the warring forces of yearning and caution. She’s so easily undone by him. It’s a vulnerability she shouldn’t allow.

She clears her throat, looking at the fuzzy outline of the windows behind him instead of at his face.

“This – It doesn’t – I hope you know this doesn’t change anything.”

Aleksander chuckles, and she can feel it in her spine.

“Alina.” His hands find her hips and he spins them around so that she’s the one pressed to the cold wood of the desk. In a smooth motion he lifts her up to sit perched on its edge.

“My Alina,” he continues, his fingers hovering over the fastenings at the front of her indigo kefta. “This changes everything.”

Any indignant thing she might have said in argument dies on her lips as he starts unbuttoning, eyes locked unblinking on hers. The buttons run the entire length of the kefta’s front from the top at her neck to the hem near her ankles. Unfastened, it could easily open and slip off entirely the way one might shrug out of a coat. But Aleksander seems in no hurry. In fact Alina thinks he rather enjoys the way her anticipation is mounting, the way her breath pants out of her loud enough to be heard over the fire crackling behind him and the snow billeting against the windows at her back.

She supposes she ought to be mortified—both by her state of near-undress and the man doing the undressing. She’d expected to feel differently in a situation like this one. Guilt, apprehension, maybe even shame at how close she’s come to quite literally sleeping with the enemy.

But she only feels impatient.

It isn’t her first time with this sort of thing. There had been feverish fumblings in the dark with a boy she’d known in the First Army—the result of too much kvas. And then, of course, there’d been Mal.

But even considering the nominal experience in her past Alina has no precedent for this, here, with Aleksander. She’s never craved someone this way, so much that it dominates every other thought and impulse.

And he knows it.

Alina wants him to open the placket of her kefta and divest her of the thing altogether. Instead, he delicately pulls back just enough fabric to expose her left shoulder and clavicle to the chilly air in the chamber.

She huffs in frustration, sitting forward and reaching up to pull him closer. Aleksander’s smile is wicked when he refuses her, pushing at the center of her chest until she’s sitting back, bracing herself with her palms flat on the desk.

“You’ve gotten used to being in charge,” he observes, and she can feel his grin on her neck beneath the collar. “We’ll have to fix that.”

She doesn’t argue, too focused on the path of his mouth, kissing his way down. He licks a hot stripe across her collarbone. A tease of his teeth on her shoulder, and then his hand pushes the kefta aside even further so it slips down her arm. Only the thin, white cotton of her slip is left to cover her. The swell of her breast, the rosy peak of her nipple are outlined in sharp relief against the fabric.

A low, guttural noise sounds from the back of Aleksander’s throat. He licks his lips, glancing up to watch her face when his hand cups her breast. His palm is rough and warm as he kneads her through the fabric of the slip and Alina sways toward his touch.

She needs more from him, much more, could be driven to begging if this carries on for much longer. But Alina had hoped to survive this encounter with some shred of her dignity still intact, so she settles instead for entreating him with her eyes, her lower lip pinched between her teeth.

Aleksander’s face betrays no reaction to her unspoken pleas, but there’s a pompous tilt to his lips when he shifts, drags his thumbnail over her nipple, rolls it between thumb and forefinger. It tingles and it stings and it’s good—really good.

Alina arches her back, her composure dangling on a fine thread. She squeezes her thighs together against the heat pooling between them.

“Why did you come here?” It’s the second time he’s posed the question, this time in a whisper.

“I already told you.”

“You wanted to see me.”

“Yes.”

“And what,” Aleksander begins, taking his time pushing the right side of her kefta off, his fingers trailing lightly over her skin, down the back of her arm. “Were you hoping for when you came here?”

“I-nothing,” she stammers, struggling to focus, looking anywhere but at his face. Her kefta hangs open now, the top drooping in a rumpled pile behind her, the sleeves gathered at her wrists. The only thing keeping it from slipping to the floor is the back of the skirt still trapped underneath her on the desk. “I didn’t plan this.”

“Funny,” he muses.

“What’s funny?”

“I’ve been planning this since the night of the Winter Fête.”

Alina falters, her head swimming. She hadn’t expected that.

“Oh?”

“I think of it often,” Aleksander affirms, tugging up slightly on the slip.

Alina doesn’t resist, raising her arms so he can get it over her head. She stifles the urge to cover herself with her hands once it’s off. She’s come this far with her confidence intact. Why stop now?

His eyes flash when he gets his first look at her, and she doesn’t miss the bob of his throat when he swallows.

“I think of what you’d feel like,” he explains, his hands a welcome warmth on her skin as he runs them up her arms, then down her back.

“What you’d smell like.” She can see the gooseflesh rising on her skin as his nose ghosts along the side of her neck above the collar.

He raises a hand to frame her jaw, his thumb pressing her lower lip, his gaze snagging on her mouth.

“The way you taste.” His kiss feels different this time, Alina’s romantic imagination running wild at the thought of Aleksander, lying awake nights and thinking of her the way she’s thought of him so many times before. She’d always assumed that night meant nothing to him, a trivial almost with a naïve girl. Perhaps she’d been wrong.

She can feel it in the way he kisses her long and slow, their tongues glossing together. He doesn’t stop her when she reaches for him, her fingers digging into his hips, beckoning him closer. She’s glad to be rid of the slip when his chest rubs up against hers, her nipples dragging on his hot flesh. It’s a riot of sensation and emotion and when he backs off she tries to follow, a magnetism drawing her mouth to his.

But Aleksander’s attention strays lower, a kiss to her throat, her chest. She hisses a breath in sharply through gritted teeth when he plants a sucking kiss on her breast, teasing at her nipple with his teeth.

Alina’s head is spinning, blood surging. She wants him so badly that she’s grabbing blindly at the waist of his pants, clumsy fingers rushing to get them undone, to feel more of him, all of him.

But he’s as vigilant as ever, never quite allowing her to take charge, backing just out of her reach. His breath is ragged and some of his cocky demeanor has dissolved into the same desire that’s driving her mad. But the hint of mischief still lingers in the line of his smirk.

He bends down, taking one of her shins in hand. First, he yanks one of her boots off at the heel, then the other. When his fingers hook over the waistband of her stockings and underthings, his brows quirk upward in a silent question.

It strikes her as more than a little unfair that he’s still half clothed, but the notion that he’s about to touch her there is enough to persuade her. At her nod he rolls the material down the expanse of her thighs, over the bony bend of her knees and ankles.

And just like that, she’s naked. She’s naked in the Darkling’s room and sitting bare-bottomed on the same desk he uses to plot her demise. The whole thing is too much to process, really. Alina takes a deep, steadying breath, and allows herself the one comfort of crossing her legs.

Her mind races with possibility, images of Aleksander’s hand between her legs, Aleksander carrying her to his bed, Aleksander bending her over the desk. What she doesn’t expect is Alexander on his knees.

“Um. What are you doing?”

He laughs lightly, shaking his head at her. His hands come to rest atop her crossed knees.

“Why, Sankta Alina, kneeling in supplication, of course.”

She snorts in amusement, the tension ebbing with his unexpected levity. There’s something contagious about his smile—his rare, beautiful smile.

But he hadn’t really answered the question.

“Come here,” he instructs, urging her toward him until she’s teetering uncomfortably and precariously on the very edge of the desk.

“What-,” she tries again, but Aleksander shoots her a look and she goes quiet.

His hands guide her legs uncrossed, slipping between her knees to splay them open wide, baring her most intimate place before him.

If her courage was going to falter, this would be the time. Alina isn’t partial to being scrutinized, especially not by someone like Aleksander—someone so physically perfect and unwaveringly self-assured. She’s utterly exposed before him, flaws and all, placing a trust in him—her enemy—that she’s never really shared with anyone else.

But Alina isn’t afraid, not when she can see the almost worshipful adoration in his eyes as he drinks her in, not when she can feel the raw force of his desire through his palm on her leg. He wants her just as much as she wants him.

He moves in closer, shuffling his knees over the stone floor. It must be terribly uncomfortable. If it is, he gives no indication, instead staring so raptly at the apex of her thighs that she can feel the color rushing to her cheeks.

By now her arousal is embarrassingly evident and Aleksander’s lips curve upward when he finally touches her, two fingertips stroking up her folds, making her shiver.

“So wet for me,” he observes, spreading a bead of hot moisture up, pausing to circle a finger around the one spot that makes her toes curl.

“Y-yes,” she manages. He can have the compliment. At this point he can say whatever he likes, so long as he gets on with it. It’s nearly unbearable—how close he is to giving her what she wants, what she needs, and how he seems in no hurry to do so.

He glances up at her, his eyes molten obsidian, traces his fingers up again. He drags them lazily between her lower lips, gathering her arousal and then rubbing over her clitoris. It’s brief and too gentle, a faint brush of the pads of his fingertips on her hypersensitive flesh.

Alina pants out a strained breath, fighting the conflicting urges to grind against his hand and maintain her balance on the desk.

“You like that,” Aleksander says—not a question, but she gives him the affirmation he’s looking for anyway.

“Uh-huh.”

Cruelly, predictably, he stops, his hand going still. Alina opens her mouth to voice her disappointment—beg, if that’s what it takes.

But she stops short when he shifts his hands, parting her with his thumbs. He ducks forward without preamble and licks a long, slow path up her open cunt.

The pleasure is so immediate and intense that she lets out a shocked little cry and reflexively tries to squeeze her thighs shut against him. She can feel Aleksander’s chuckle more than hear it, the warmth of his breath is delicious torture against the aching core of her.

Without thinking she tries to rock forward, craving the warm press of his wet mouth again, but her range of motion is limited on the rough edge of the desk.

“Hold still,” he orders, laying a hand on her abdomen. She does her best to comply but when he leans in again, this time rewarding her with a slower, deeper stroke of his tongue, she can’t help the eager buck of her hips, rising to meet him.

Aleksander pauses, but doesn’t chastise her again.

“I love,” he murmurs, his lips sealing the words on her flesh, “How responsive you are.”

He loops an arm under and around her thigh, throwing her leg over his shoulder so she’s anchored more securely against him. Alina hardly notices. It’s all she can do to maintain even the slightest clarity of mind as he laps at her again, deliberate swipes with the flat of his tongue, savoring her like something rare and fine. 

She’s a drawn bowstring of want, vibrating with tension and desperation, the pleasure acute and disarming. No one, not even Mal, has ever done anything like this to her before.

Alina doesn’t know if it’s the unique connection between them or Aleksander’s generations of experience, but he somehow predicts her every desire, touches her exactly where and how she wants to be touched. She’s so slippery-slick that it’s easy when he slides not one but two long, deft fingers inside her, curving them upward and seeking the spot deep within her that yearns to be found.

Tomorrow she’ll be burning with shame at the way she ruts against his face, her hand twisting into the sheen of his dark hair so she can hold him roughly against her sopping cunt. Now, though, she relishes in the eroticism of it, his single-minded dedication to her pleasure, the rhythmic motion of his fingers, the flick of his clever tongue.

In the quiet of his chambers the indecent, wet sounds of him supping at her with his lips and tongue are loud, but Alina is louder, moaning incoherent attempts at enunciating his name. She knows he likes that.

And he knows what she likes, too; that’s clear from the way he fucks her, hard, with his fingers. The sweet purse of his lips when he suckles at her clit.

Saints, yes, Aleks—,” she gasps out, but can’t quite finish the word, too breathless, mindless with sensation. She peers down to find him looking back, entranced by his eyes as he watches her writhe and whimper for him, only him.

It’s the prurient sight of him there that does her in. She comes hard, her legs quaking, nails catching painfully on the grain of the wooden desk as she claws at it for purchase. Her body clenches against Aleksander’s hand and he lets her, keeping his mouth on her until it’s finally too much.

Afterwards, she can’t even move, just sits there stunned and over-sensitized, trying to catch her breath, her limbs like jelly. When she starts to pull away, Aleksander sits back on his heels, face glistening with the fresh evidence of her pleasure. His smile is wide and boyish, and Alina thinks he’s never been more handsome.

Moments ago, she’d been wailing his name and coming on his face, heedless of the oprichniki who could doubtlessly hear her outside. The contrasting silence is deafening. What could she possibly say now that wouldn’t sound ridiculous? What could she possibly do in reciprocation that could adequately follow that?

Thankfully, Aleksander doesn’t really give her the space to worry about it.

Rising gracefully to his feet, he scoops her up in his arms, eliciting a little oh! of surprise as he carries her across the chamber. Its features materialize in the hazy peripherals of her vision along the way, his bookcases, the intricate designs on the walls.

He eases her down onto the plush, black bedclothes, the familiar scent engulfing her. The bed is unmade, which seems out-of-character for him somehow. Apparently, Alina isn’t the only one who’s been tossing and turning through the nights.

She nestles into the welcoming softness of the mattress, eyeing Aleksander as he slips lithely out of his pants. She’d assumed he would be … well-endowed. Everything about his appearance had always been almost preternaturally perfect in her eyes.

But not even her most generous fantasies could have prepared her for the real thing. All lean muscle and smooth skin. And, well, he is big—enough to be enticing and even a little daunting. Aleksander lets her look her fill, his eyes like twin embers, the heat behind them enough to send an involuntary tremor down her spine, coaxing a flush to her cheeks.

“You look good in black,” he muses, sliding in next to her under the cool sheets.

“I prefer Etherealki blue,” she says primly, grinning as he turns on his side to face her.

“I prefer you in nothing at all.” He reaches over to pull her to him, burying his face in the crook of her neck and peppering her in ticklish kisses.

Alina can’t help her high-pitched giggle, the way her skin heats under his lips. She’s still muzzy and lightheaded from before, her body deliciously sated. But one kiss from Aleksander and already her blood is up. She can taste herself in his mouth, feel the way he wants her in the press of his hardness against her belly.

It’s all too pleasant and comfortable. Being with him shouldn’t be this easy, she thinks, as she takes the length of him in her hand, smiles against his gasping intake of breath at her touch. She shouldn’t feel so bold, so fearless. So happy.

She shouldn’t, but she does.

He’s the last man she ought to be doing this with, and the only man she wants. Another pump of her hand along his cock and he swears under his breath, keening into her grip.

As dangerous as Aleksander is, as duplicitous as he is, Alina knows that this, at least, is real. She can feel the frantic progression of his lust, the struggle to contain himself as she strokes her fingers lightly over the thickness of him again.

She wants to make him feel good, to come undone the way she did for him. So she presses her advantage, urging him over onto his back. The dark silk covers drop away as she sits up to straddle him, half-expecting him to shove her off and wrest back control. But Aleksander only watches her through heavy-lidded eyes, his hands settling on her sides when she finally moves—an experimental grind of her hips on his.

A strangled groan falls from his lips at the sweet friction, the drag of her wet heat along his length.

“Fuck, Alina,” he mutters through gritted teeth, his hands rough on her hips, urging her on.

She lacks the willpower to draw it out or tease him the way he’d done. It’s better by far to reach between them and position him just so, to bear down and sheath herself around him at last. He slides easily into the snug heat of her body, their breath catching on a shared gasp.

Alina doesn’t have to think much after that. It’s easy, natural, her weight balanced with her hands on his chest as she rides him. He meets the forward motion of her thrusts, driving up into her with a synchronous rhythm. It’s like her movements are telegraphed through their bond, her every breath matched by his.

Her hair falls around them in a silvery pale curtain, cordoning them off from the rest of the world, the brewing snowstorm outside, the fire dying in the grate, the guards patrolling in the hall. She can feel herself sinking in the dark pools of his eyes, but she never wants to come up for air.

Alina loses herself in the sweet pressure of him filling her up with every snap of her hips, the way he surges up to kiss her, swallowing her cries of pleasure, their open mouths bumping sloppily with the movement of their bodies.

Just when she can feel the familiar tension gathering in her belly, her breath coming faster, heart pounding harder, Aleksander flips them over so her back is pressed into the mattress.

He pins her hands down on either side of her head, lacing their fingers together as he easily resumes the cadence of their lovemaking.

Alina thought the connection between them was powerful before, all those times she’d been startled by the stroke of his hand, a brush of his lips. But this, this is transcendent. The coupling of their bodies melds their minds until she can see into him as easily as looking through an open window.

She can feel him, skittering over her skin like static. It’s not just the damp of his sweat-slick forehead when he rests it against hers, not just the euphoric wave of sensation when the length of him reaches the very core of her over and over again.

It’s him; she feels what he feels, the way it knocks the air right out of him every time he drives into the tight clench of her heat, the carnal possessiveness when she breathes out his name. Aleksander, Aleksander, Aleksander.

It’s a reciprocal feedback loop of mutual ecstasy, so good it’s a little scary. She can hear his every filthy thought as though he were whispering them in her ear, how she feels so fucking good, how badly he wants to make her come, to dive back down between her legs and taste the rich honey of her cunt again, lick her until she begs, until she begs him to stop.

It’s dizzying, voyeuristic and impossibly hot. She wonders if he can see her own stream of consciousness this clearly, that the angle of his hips is excruciatingly good, how liberating it feels to let go so completely in his arms.

But in a closely-guarded corner of his mind Alina senses something else, too. The way he sees her, far more beautiful than she’s ever actually looked, the aching fondness in his heart when she smiles. All of it heightened by the paralyzing fear he tries to suffocate, the fear that he’ll lose her like he’s lost everyone and everything else.

It’s overwhelming, peering into his soul and finding such tenderness there, feeling it sublimated in the join of their bodies. Alina didn’t know physical pleasure and emotional vulnerability could mingle so harmoniously, that intimacy this profound could even exist.

But their connection goes both ways. The only danger is the undercurrent of genuine affection for him that she can feel cresting like a wave in her heart, destined to break.

It’s more frightening than a whole legion of volcra could ever hope to be. She can’t fall for this again. The gentle, lonely, misunderstood part of him she’s glimpsed before isn’t real.

It isn’t real.

It isn’t.

Sensing her trepidation, he lifts a hand to her chin, drawing her eyes to his. Unbidden, she’s reminded of another time he’d touched her this way, what feels like a lifetime ago. It was the day they’d met, when he saved her from the Fjerdan assassin. She’d been terrified, traumatized, confused and unmoored. Even then, he’d known how to guide her back to safe harbor. Look at me, he’d told her, shielding her from the horror of the dead Fjerdan. At me.

She looks at him now, his expression so soft he’s almost unrecognizable. Alina holds his gaze as he continues rocking into her, his pace gone choppy, hips stuttering as his pleasure reaches its crisis. She wants to watch his face, commit to memory the way his brow creases, the part of his perfect lips, but her own orgasm seizes her so she’s seeing white, her breath escaping in a wracked sob.

Aleksander stills over her, pressing a trembly kiss to her forehead before carefully extricating himself and collapsing next to her on the bed. The physical separation is jarring, and Alina sidles up to him instinctively, twining their legs, pressing herself to the hard planes of his chest.

The silence is companionable and pleasant, contentment spilling out of her in a glow of involuntary summoning, the light shimmering around her like an aurora. It’s never happened before, would be a marvel on its own. But as she lies with Aleksander, feeling the gradual slow of their synced heartbeats, she can see light radiating from him as well, a faint but steady golden haze.

He doesn’t seem to notice, his face as placid as undisturbed water, an arm draped casually over the dip of her waist.

Alina thinks of the White Cathedral, her harrowing escape, the way she’d thrown shadow in a pale imitation of the Darkling’s power. She’d long since accepted the specter of her own darkness—no-doubt fostered by Aleksander, but her darkness all the same. She’d never imagined he’d held a corresponding light. Her stomach flutters at the sight, looking younger and more human than she’s ever seen him. Against all reason, it ignites a spark of hope.

“Aleksander?” she asks hesitantly, snuggling in closer. “Is it always … like that for you?”

His trademark smugness edges its way back into his smirk.

“Like what?”  

“Like that. You know.” Her cheeks color just thinking about it. How can she possibly articulate what just transpired between them? Alina’s no expert but she knows enough about sex to know that whatever they’d just shared went well beyond it.

“I do know,” he says, a little softer. “And no, I’ve never been with another person quite ‘like that.’”

She scoffs at the mocking tone of his voice when he quotes her; but she doesn’t mind his teasing. She can hardly believe it, but she likes it—being with him this way. It makes her feel warm and giddy, like a much younger girl with a much younger boy in a far safer place.

Aleksander lifts a hand to push the damp hair out of her face, the better to see the joy in her eyes. She can feel him again, the connection, its accompanying sense of comfort and surety. And underlying it, his thoughts. A single, clear refrain writ so large across his mind that he may as well be waving it around on a painted banner. I love you. I love you so much. I-

Alina goes still, sucking in a startled breath. Something in her expression must give her away, register her surprise at the ardent power of his emotion, because the halo of fulgent light around him flickers like a candle guttering in the wind, and goes out.

Panic rises like bile in her throat as his face contorts in anger. Anger at her for the intrusion into his thoughts, at himself for this momentary lapse in judgment, for trusting her.

He shrinks away from her, slides out of the bed and steps hurriedly back into his trousers.

No, no, no. This is all wrong. Alina had been so happy, so uncomplicatedly happy, that for once they were at peace. And he’d been happy, too, but already he was slipping away from her like water through her hands.

“Please,” she says, stumbling from the bed, wrapping herself clumsily in the sheets. “Aleksander, stop—.”

He wheels around to face her, his eyes afire, but his expression carefully schooled into a mask of quiet rage.

“Did you get what you wanted, Alina?” His voice is measured, even, deadly.

“I—What? No, listen—.”

“Don’t bother. It’s my fault, truly. I should have anticipated this from you after everything we’ve been through. Another deception, a ploy to expose the chinks in my armor. Tell me, what was your plan, exactly?”

“Plan? Wait—,”

“No. I’ve waited long enough. I’ve been fighting this entire war in half measures. For you. But you already know that, don’t you? What was it I told you back then? ‘The problem with wanting is that it makes us weak.’”

She shakes her head helplessly, unshed tears stinging in her eyes.

“And you know exactly what I want. I suppose you thought you’d have your fun making me believe I have it now, have you.” He spits out the last word with so much derision that she takes a step backward, hands shaking where they clasp the edges of the sheet together around her torso.

“What did you think? That you could seduce me into compliance? You used this vulnerability to look inside my head. And for what? Secrets? Battle plans? Or is it something else? Do you actually believe that I could ever be manipulated into aligning myself with your worthless cause?”

No,” she protests, mustering the courage to close the distance he’d opened up between them.

“Don’t do this. Can’t you see?” She swallows the emotion thick in her throat, gathering her resolve. “I feel it, too. And it’s only made me stronger. Aleksander, I’ve loved you all along.”

He just stares at her, his face impassive. The silence stretches interminably before he responds.

“You’ve become quite the actress, Alina. Did you learn it from that fop of a Lantsov?”

“It doesn’t have to be this way,” she insists, ignoring the barb. “You know it doesn’t. There is more connecting us than driving us apart.”

“Our connection has been my curse.”

“It could be our salvation. It isn’t too late. If we work together the fighting could end tonight.”

He snorts. “So you have come here as a diplomat. I have to say, your negotiation tactics are less than conventional.”

“I’m serious, Aleksander. I followed my heart to you. Open yours to me.”

“There are no bargains between the wolf and the sheep,” he returns coldly.

Alina sighs, taking a step closer.

“I didn’t come here to bargain. But I’ve known your soul, Aleksander. If you’re a beast, then so am I.”

His eyes soften, his face goes slack. She can read the conflict in him like an open book. She’s offering the acceptance and belonging that he’s sought out all his long life but at a price his pride and self-preservation can’t balance.

She reaches up to cup his cheek, but he catches her wrist in his hand.

“Alina, you need to leave.”

He lets go, turns his back to her, stoops over the desk. She can see the tension in the rigidity of his posture.

“No,” she whispers.

“It’s like you said before. This doesn’t change anything.”

Before she can reply he unleashes a torrent of darkness, clouds of shadow, tendrils of black rushing out to fill every space and block out all the light until she can’t see him at all.

Alina takes an unsteady step, blinking in the darkness, and finds herself back in her room at the Spinning Wheel.

She bolts upright in bed, heart hammering in her ears as she orients herself to her surroundings. Her narrow bed, the glint of Nikolai’s ring in her hand. And nothing else, no one else.

He’s gone.

Solitude closing in around her, she steels herself against the onslaught of despair. Alina Starkov is nothing if not determined. There is light inside of him, and she can rekindle it.

“My Aleksander,” she murmurs to the empty room, letting hope run away with her foolish heart. “This changes everything.”