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Everything That Falls (Gets Broken)

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Two hundred sixty-five. 

That’s the number of days before Alina picks up a brush again. Only it’s not a paintbrush, or a pencil, or even a stylus, it’s a crayon. Magenta , which — as either fate or a whimsical waitstaff would have it — is the only color that stands out in the gloom. Her canvas is a bleach-white paper napkin, one that’s mercifully strong enough to hold up as she pins it under the dead weight of her left forearm, scribbling away under the dim, recessed lights of the Imperial Lotus.

The man arrived late, sliding past the beaded curtain that veils the back room from the rest of the restaurant, a living knife. His glasses flashed with light from the illuminated murals as he embraced the two people who’d greeted her at the door, a stylish elderly pair who seemed more likely to be found running a library fundraiser than a kink munch. Then he parked himself on a barstool in a corner of the room and glued himself to his phone, and hasn’t moved much since.

It makes him a perfect subject, especially for someone who’s as rusty as Alina. His skin is luminous against the shadows, his eyes downcast but still visible. Still burning, though his lashes are low. His striped grey sweater sets off dark hair that’s shot with silver, stray tendrils falling over his forehead and before his smoky quartz eyes, and his unexpected jeans/sneakers combo hints at a playful side. He could be forty or fifty, not that it matters. She’ll never speak to him anyway.

She’s lost to the work, almost done, when she glances up to find him already looking at her. Staring coolly, as though he’s been watching her like this for a while.

Her heart booms in her chest, and she blinks, only realizing a moment later that the tip of her tongue is sticking out. Then she’s biting on her lower lip without even knowing how that happened, nearly drawing blood as she winces and the man on the barstool  scowls at her, startled.

Alina glances away, dabbing her lip with her thumb — and by the time she’s sure she isn’t actually bleeding he’s looming over her shoulder, peering down at the scribble.

“I don’t recall giving you permission to draw me.” His voice is low, musical, and cthulhu help her, beautiful . Everything about him is exquisite, from his angular cheekbones to his noble bearing, and every time his dark eyes lock with hers an electric jolt sparks in her belly.

“I-I’m so sorry,” she stammers, cheeks scorching with a mortified blush, “I—”

“I’m just giving you a hard time,” he interrupts as his lips curve in a chagrined smile. His jaw is covered in a scruffy beard, but his dimples knock the wind out of her — and the way the outer corners of his eyes crinkle like fjords, fuck

He sits beside her without asking, and extends a graceful hand. “May I?”

Alina surrenders the sketch to him wordlessly. There’s no way to refuse, not when she’s in the wrong like this. 

She’s already trying to put together something more articulate in the way of an apology when he glances up at her again. “This is very good.”

“Thanks.” She’d feel offended by the surprise in his voice if she felt less surprised herself. “I used to be an artist.”

He studies her seriously. “Did you quit sometime in the last ten seconds?”

“No.” The laugh that bubbles out of her is a surprise, too. “I—” How the fuck am I supposed to explain…? “It’s hard to draw without the other hand there to brace or hold things.” She frowns down at the sketch, avoiding his magnetic gaze for a few seconds. “Except on napkins, as it turns out.”

“Feel free not to answer, but—”

“Cancer,” she says lightly as she looks up again, tacking on a preemptive: “It’s all right.”

“No, I’m really—” His obvious embarrassment makes her own easier to bear, his obsidian eyes going wide before his brow knits. His Adam’s apple bobs as he swallows hard and tries again: “I didn’t mean—”

“Really, it’s okay.” Alina’s half-giggling by now. At least he squirms prettily, which is better than the aghast expressions she usually gets — or worse, the platitudes. No one ever knows how to react to a survivor, let alone one who’s barely thirty.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. At least you got it over with young. Wishing you strength on your healing journey. All of which makes her want to yeet herself off a cliff.

“Let’s try this again.” He huffs out a breath, then offers a sheepish smile. “Hi, I’m Darkheart.”

“Oh — right.” She’d completely forgotten about referring to herself by her handle. “I’m, um, Koroleva.” It feels awkward, though, and despite herself she finds herself adding, “Alina.”

“Aleks. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Alina.” He jerks his chin, indicating their surroundings as a lovely blush creeps up the column of his neck. “Is this your first time here?”

Is it that obvious? “Yeah. I was supposed to be meeting someone.”

His eyes narrow ever-so-slightly. “Partner?”

“Friend — I’m unpartnered.” The last two words burst out on their own, and even though they’re the truth, they still hurt. A dagger twisting in her chest, reopening the wound. Not so long ago she was coming to this kind of thing with Nikolai, not getting stood up by a friend — justifiably or otherwise — hundreds of miles from home. Or the last place she called home, anyway. “You might know her actually … her handle is MsTaylor?”

“Oh sure,” Aleks says, his brow relaxing in recognition. “We’ve got some friends in common.”

“Sounds like her, she knows everyone.” Which was one of the reasons Alina was even remotely okay with the idea of coming here. It’s easy to hide behind the sun.

“Is she coming later?” Bless his heart, he even squints toward the door like Genya might march on in at any moment. If only.

“Apparently work needed her today more than I did,” Alina sighs in mock exasperation. “And at the last minute, too.”

Aleks smirks at that. “How dare.”

“See, that’s the nice thing about being retired: no schedule, no commitments.”

“Seems like it might get tedious. All those golf afternoons, early bird lunches…”

Suddenly Alina would rather talk about anything but her empty hulk of a life. “What do you do? —or wait, sorry, is that okay to ask? You don’t have to answer.”

“I’m a professor. English literature over at the community college.”

“Oh wow,” she mutters, biting back the pain as one tiny shift of her collarbone makes the red line under her shirt seethe with pain. “You would absolutely hate my life.”

“A failing education system, crushing debt, the last paraoxysms of end-stage capitalism…” The dark-eyed man snorts with quiet laughter. “The excitement is nearly apocalyptic.”

Alina finds herself grinning, too. “I wish I’d had a professor like you. The least anyone can do is be honest about all that.”

His lips are still curved, but danger glitters in his dark eyes. “That wouldn’t have worked out.”

“Are you saying you wouldn’t have wanted me as a student?” She sniffs haughtily. “ Rude. You don’t even know me.” Jesus, how does she feel so … playful? Not her old self, certainly, but not the sad sack she’s become of late.

Aleks is unfazed, leaning closer if anything, that little smirk still tucked in the corner of his mouth. “I know you well enough already to be sure the power dynamic between us would’ve been … complicated.”

Alina wraps her arms around herself — the best approximation she’s been able to find for folding them over her chest — and peers back at him, shaking her head as a frisson of excitement runs through her. He’s so damn cocky , it’s hard to resist getting caught up in his spell. “So sure of yourself.”

“Myself? Nah,” he laughs, practically guffawing now before collecting himself — and when he does, his eyes smolder into her, intense as her scar. He’s doing a good job of acting nonchalant, but there’s a lot more going on beneath his pretty facade. “I just know a catalyst when I see one.”

Catalyst? I’ve just got done telling you that I’m literally the most boring person in the world.”

“You don’t really believe that, do you? Because this” —He holds up her sketch, carefully , like it actually matters and isn’t a wayward scrap of whoever she used to be— “says something entirely different.”

Alina arches an eyebrow. “Are you an art critic, too?”

“Fellow artist. My medium is rope. And this tells me a lot.”

She blinks innocently as Aleks pauses, then waves a hand for him to continue. “Go on, then, clearly you’re dying to get it out.”

And more — a part of her wants to hear whatever he thinks of her, this stranger who’s actually made her laugh. Something that, a month ago, she didn’t even think was possible.

The first two fingers of his free hand trail against the sketch, right where the lines grow chaotic, jumbled over each other with overlapping strokes. “You see the shadows, the darkness … and you don’t flinch. Not even when it stares back into you.”

“Vague, ominous…” Alina sucks her teeth, unimpressed. “Did you learn that at tarot camp?”

Aleks flashes that unnervingly handsome grin again, his teeth white as pearls. “ Tarot camp? Do I look like a fortune-teller?”

“You look lonely.”

His smile falls like some inner cord’s been cut — and Alina’s heart seizes. Aleks doesn’t seem angry or upset, though, just strangely sad, as though the words have gone right through him. Her stomach cramps with anxiety as he studies her. Thinking.

“Is that so,” he finally murmurs. Not a question.

She’s in it now; there’s no way out but forward. “Sitting down with a perfect stranger and chattering away…” Her laugh is brittle. “Yeah, you’re lonely.”

“I’d wager you’re the kind of person who can’t accept that there’s anything special about yourself, aren’t you?”

“Do I believe a smooth-talking stranger’s opinion of me?” Alina gives him the furry eyeball. “Of course not.”

Aleks tilts his head, acceding the point. “You’ve got me there.” He hesitates, then adds, “But I would like to get to know you better, Alina the artist.”

Retired artist.”

He gives a quiet hmmph, looking dubious as hell before changing the subject: “Is this your first munch?”

“First one here, not first first.”

“So you’re not new to the community.”

The community. The umbrella terms for all manner of sluts, perverts, and other delightful strange folk that congregate in meetups like these — game nights, pub nights, back-room lunches. A secret club that’s open to any who can live by the creed. 

Your kink is not my kink. Live and let live.

Alina shakes her head. Here it comes. “My ex-husband introduced me to the lifestyle.”

“Ah.” His black eyes flicker with something Alina can’t name — and then it’s gone, his face smoothing into a polite mask. “Well, as your self-appointed tour guide, the local community primarily revolves around the Electric Teakettle, Baghra and Botkin’s home.” Aleks nods to the elderly couple, who do seem to have a sort of gravitational pull on the others, the knots of chattering people glancing at them, moving about them in unfamiliar constellations. “They’re the founders of the House of Misfit Toys. It’s a bit of a found family, in addition to the kinkery aspect.”

“Sounds wholesome.”

“Don’t let their public faces fool you. Their afterparties are the stuff of legend.”

The way he’s looking away at the grey-haired duo, dangling bait and posturing so coolly. Waiting for her to ask. “A play party, you mean.”

“Play parties, demonstrations, masquerades…” Aleks drawls. Fuck, that voice does things to her — and for the first time in her life understands the madness of the maenads, the way it’s verging on too much every time he speaks. “It’s worth getting vetted by Baghra and Botkin to be on their invite list.”

More crumbs — and he’s intriguing enough to make Alina actually want to play along. He’s just so vibrant. So alive , a spark in a sea of grey. “Sounds like a job interview.”

“It’s just a conversation.” His eyes flick to her, and she shivers at the magnetic click as his gaze captures her. “Not unlike this one.”

That gives her a start. “Are you vetting me, Aleks?”

He lifts one shoulder in a lopsided shrug. “I’m only a peripheral member of the House. And we’re only talking.” For the first time, his forehead creases with genuine concern. “If I’m bothering you, though—”

“No, it’s all right.” It pops out of her too quickly, too eagerly. “Don’t feel obliged to get back to your doomscrolling on my account. Or, y’know, mingling.”

He lifts an eyebrow, regarding her sternly. Hello, Daddy. “I’m not hunting.”

“Really?” She lifts her left arm, and her hand dangles limply, waggling like a bad prop. “You singled out the weakest member of the herd—”

You singled me out by staring,” Aleks insists. “And after talking to you for less than five minutes, Alina, I can assure you that you’re not the weakest person in this room. Far from it.”

The nape of her neck thrills as he stares into her, stirring something that should be left to slumber. “I should go.”

He’s instantly apologetic, blushing madly again. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you you uncomfortable—”

“No, you didn’t.” She did feel unsettled, but not the way he means. “I’m honestly not even sure why I came after Genya — er, I mean, MsTaylor, shitballs, sorry — bailed.”

“Maybe you’re lonely, too.”

Alina huffs out a mirthless laugh, and her eyebrows dart toward her hairline as she shakes her head. “I’m past having partners.”

“At the risk of sounding my age, you’re awfully young to make such a statement like that. Sure, you might not choose to have partners, but past having partners altogether?” Aleks clicks his tongue. “I don’t buy it. You’ve got a whole lifetime to live before you even reach my age, and I couldn’t even say a thing like that yet.”

“My body is broken, my spirit is broken … I’m a walking trainwreck.” The words keep tumbling out of her, and they sound childish as hell, but it’s the truth. “And I’m leaving.”

“In order to do that, you’d first have to get up. Which I notice you’re not doing.”

His black gaze probes her — and suddenly they aren’t sitting at one far-flung arm of the horseshoe of pushed-together tables, surrounded by an ocean of strange faces. It’s just them, tucked away in a little bubble of space and time. The second she stands up, it’ll shatter. “I suppose I’m just enjoying this while it lasts,” Alina admits.

His brow only furrows in confusion. “ It?

Her blush returns full force, scalding her face as her heart squeezes in the cage of her chest. “It’s not every day a hot guy pops out of the woodwork to talk to me.”

“So I’m hot? ” Aleks croons, utterly smug and all the hotter for it.

“Oh come on . You don’t walk around looking like that ” —She gestures at his stupid handsome face— “not knowing you’re good-looking.”

He grins. “Not everyone thinks that. But I’m gratified to know that you do, Alina.”

“And you say you’re not hunting, Aleks ,” she replies softly.

He tilts his head, his gaze provoking something in her that makes her nerves sing like water goblets. “I guess you bring that instinct out in me.”

“To chase the thing that’s running away from you?”

“Admiring the person who’s sitting in front of me, who’s very intriguing indeed.”

“All because I drew your picture.”

Aleks lifts the besmirched napkin again, trapping a corner between his elegant fingers. “In pink crayon, no less.”

Now it’s Alina’s turn to study him, reading his neat brow and the way his plush lips are curved in amusement. “Is your masculinity threatened?”

“By a color?” Aleks snorts, derisive. “ Hardly .” He makes a show of looking at the sketch again, appraising it down the end of his nose. “Besides, I look good in magenta.” She shakes her head, and he glances back at her, squinting with suspicion. “What?”

“D’you ever meet someone, and you’re like, Yeah, they’re a Dom ?” she teases.

“Do I give off that energy?”

He has the audacity to look naive — and Alina rolls her eyes, smirking. “I’m right, aren’t I?”

“Guilty as charged,” he admits with a shrug. “You though … I’m not sure.”

“Really?”

“You could be a switch.” His dark eyes trace the length of her body, and she has to force herself not to squirm. “You could be anything, really.”

“I’m a sub.” The phrase tastes strange. Hollow. “Or I was, back when I … did stuff,” she amends.

“No more stuff for you? You’re doomed to be perpetually unstuffed?”

Of course he knows what he’s saying, but he’s wearing a look of perfect innocence — and Alina offers a weak shrug, gesturing to her left shoulder. “I think my submission’s broken from all of this.

How can he manage to look concerned without drowning her in pity? “How long’s it been?”

Two hundred sixty-five days. “A while. Long enough to know.”

“But you’ve been unpartnered during that time?”

She shifts in her seat, not sure where to look as he stares into her. "More or less.”

“Ex-husband, right,” he mutters, face flushing. “So cancer, and then a breakup?” He gives a low whistle. “Bloody hell, that’s enough to do a number on anyone.”

“Yeah.” She can’t think of anything else to say.

Yes. Yes, exactly, I’m no good for anyone. Not like this.

“Well … if your adventurous spirit respawns, there are loads of nice people about,” Aleks says. “Or not nice, depending on your fancy.” He grins wickedly. “Feel free to look me up on Kinkatopia. I’d be … intrigued to know if we share any mutual interests.”

Hot desire drips down her spine to pool in her sex. Kinks . That’s what he’s saying, whether or not he’s actually uttered the words.

Then he nods. Once, firmly. “It was lovely to meet you, Alina the artist.”

“You, too, Darkheart.”

He stands and slowly strolls away, and Alina’s abruptly free. She slings the strap of her day bag over her head, settling it diagonally across her torso as she books it for the door, silent as a wraith — and as she looks back, Aleks is deep in conversation with the older couple he’d called Bahgra and Botkin.

Then his eyes find hers one more time, obsidian and unrelenting, and Alina flees, sliding between the clacking tendrils of the beaded curtain and darting for the safety of the front door.