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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.

Chapter Text

Alina waits for the rideshare outside, dragging on the pink beanie and tucking her sweater tighter around her body, but the loose knit is a poor defense against the crisp October wind. By the time the tiny blue sedan pulls up her good arm is almost as cold as her bad one, her skin pale and bloodless.

The driver is a cheerful young woman whose eyes crinkle with a smile over her mask — and once the car is rolling away from the curb, its warmth surrounding her in a soporific embrace, Alina can finally relax.

Even outside the Imperial Garden she’d been on a knife’s edge, tucking herself safely out of sight of the restaurant’s windows. Waiting, eyeing the front door as people drifted out into the cool afternoon. The munch would be going for another hour at least, but who knew when the lanky man with the soul-piercing eyes might emerge?

Now she’s away, safely anonymous.

She’s never really thought of older men in that way, not with curiosity. Not sexually .

But Aleks … he was so sure of himself, confident in a way men her own age never are. Like he can truly back up that roguish attitude. For so long she’s felt nothing but numb, and the world has contentedly let her float along. But to be have someone notice her — to actually feel something again, that shiver in her stomach as his dark eyes held her captive—

“Fuck,” Alina mutters.

The driver’s head twitches. “Everything okay?”

“Yeah,” she offers, fishing her phone out of her bag quickly enough to hold it up as a lame excuse. “Just my friend.”

“Oh, gotcha. Let me know if you need anything.”

Alina slumps back and lets the warmth wash over her, soft electropop whispering out of the speakers behind her head. She doesn’t even bother with her phone, just shoves it back into her bag.

My friend. She resists the urge to snort. The irony.

The winter’s cold is looming, though she hasn’t felt it this early in years. Os Kervo is nothing like Os Alta, with humble Cape Cods and saltbox houses in place of the city’s glass and chrome. Piles of lobster pots and firewood litter the sprawling yards, grass growing wild where it hasn’t been tamed into orderly gardens. If she’d been living there ( home, her mind wistfully supplies, even knowing that’s no longer true) she might’ve only begun to notice the brisk air, but here the trees are aflame, once-emerald leaves painting the landscape in vibrant oranges and yellows where they haven’t fallen away altogether. The wind skirls through the branches and a curl of blazing colors peels away as she watches, fluttering to the ground like she’s blundered into Stardew Valley instead of the end of the earth.

Everything still looks strange, new, but Alina recognizes the end of the street, narrow and flanked by an array of rusted, overgrown vehicles. The apartment is a few houses further — and her stomach drops as she sees the faded red pickup in the driveway.

Mal.

He’s standing at the stove when she walks in, prodding a pot of spaghetti that’s nearly boiling over — and he glances back, frowning at the sound of the door. “You’re back early.”

“I thought you were going to the movies,” Alina evades, stumbling as she awkwardly kicks out of her shoes. 

Fortunately Mal’s glancing back at the stove, sawing at the boiling pot with a plastic spoon, probably trying to scrape off burned noodles. “Nah, Mikhael couldn’t make it and Dubrov bailed. How was lunch with Genya?”

Of course he massacres the syllables. “It’s DJEN-ya.” Mal grunts noncommittally, and Alina rolls her eyes as she leans against the kitchen island. “You could at least get the pronunciation of my best friend’s name right.”

The burner hisses as he turns back to glower back at her. “Oi, I’m your best friend.”

“You’re my oldest friend.” His mouth pops open, but she quickly clarifies, “Or would you prefer you be the one I call when I need to vent about Love Island?

“Right, that’s fair,” Mal mutters. He stabs at the eruption of bubbles that’s welling up before him. “Anyway, how was she?”

Fuck. It’s like he knows she’s trying to be evasive. Even without having ever talked sex with Mal, she’s reasonably sure his proclivities run toward the straight and narrow; trying to explain about kink, let alone the kink community, would’ve been awkward as hell. The omission had seemed easier at the time, but now… “She, er … couldn’t make it.”

What? ” He turns back to her, spinning fast enough to send a dollop of bubbly water splattering onto the checkered linoleum. Hopefully he won’t actually start a fire, her aim with a fire extinguisher is bound to be half-assed at best. “How did you get home?”

“Rideshare.”

“You should’ve called me, I would’ve come and gotten you,” he chides sharply.

“I know.” She glances pointedly at the pot. “What’cha cooking?”

Making? ” Mal laughs. “No. Heating — and instant noodles. Surprisingly less instant than advertised.” He sighs as Alina’s stomach rumbles. “I’ll grab you a bowl.”

She slips around the freestanding island, grabbing a wooden spoon out of a drawer and balancing it over the pot’s mouth as he moves to the cupboard. “Thank you, Mal. You’re the best.”

“Though not the best friend. Then I’d have to stand you up for lunch instead of feeding you.”

“You turd.” Alina flings a potholder at him — and though her aim’s been off ever since the other arm became useless, she’s pleased to see it glance off the back of his buzzed head.

“Don’t act like you don’t love me for being salty,” he says with a winning grin.

“I don’t, ” she half-giggles. “I love you and you happen to be salty.”

“You love —”

“Oh you know what I mean,” Alina snorts.

“Yeah, yeah.” She looks back at him in time to catch the way his hazel eyes flick toward the end of the counter. “Oh, something came for you.”

The deceptively casual way he says the words is enough to set her on edge — and she follows his gaze to a simple brown box that’s been clumsily taped shut. Without even looking at the shipping label, she knows where it’s from. And then she isn’t hungry anymore.

Alina can feel Mal watching her as he skids the pot off the burner. “D’you want me to open it for you?” he asks.

“I’ll do it. Won’t be a minute.”

She bundles the package under her good arm and hustles away to the spare bedroom. The one she still doesn’t think of as hers , even though it’s where she keeps what little of her stuff isn’t locked away in storage.

The door clicks shut and then she’s alone, even Mal’s shuffling movements gone quiet.

Is it her imagination, or does the package even smell like him? Expensive cologne, the subtle notes of his detergent, the recycled air from the eleventh-floor flat. Scents that immediately remind her of a bed that isn’t a mattress on a floor, walls covered in pictures and posters instead of being bare paint. A life that was warm and familiar — even if it all turned out to all be a lie.

Alina’s heart thuds in her throat as she wrestles with the tape, finally puncturing it open with a ballpoint pen. Two books tumble out, but she doesn’t recognize their titles. Even the subjects, accounting and a Western novel, are entirely wrong; her wide-ranging interests notwithstanding, she never even seen them before.

She looks in the box, flips through the strange books, but there’s nothing else.

No note. Not even a scrap of paper.

That’s the most hurtful part. Not that Nikolai would send books that aren’t hers, that couldn’t possibly be hers. That it didn’t occur to him to send a note — or if it did, he dismissed it. That one way or another, she wasn’t worth the effort.

Six years together, and this is how it ends. Anyone else would cry. Alina stares down at the empty box, just as hollow.

“Cry,” she mutters, but her body stubbornly refuses to cooperate. There isn’t even a prick at the inner corner of her eyes.

The knock at the door makes her jump — and it’s a good thing she isn’t crying, because Mal opens it without asking, his hazel eyes narrowed with worry. “Lunch is ready.”

“Thanks. Be right out.”

Alina packs the books back into their box, resealing the package away the best she’s able. She doesn’t look at Mal as she emerges from the bedroom, just walks straight to the back door and opens it far enough to heave the whole thing into the garbage.

Mal’s asking something by the time she’s shutting the door, but she drowns it out with a sprightly, “ Well then.” He falls silent, watching her with a baffled expression as she pastes on a smile. “Thanks again for lunch, Mal.”

“Anytime.” He hesitates. “D’you want to talk ab—”

“Just lunch,” she says quickly — and though his gaze darts to the door again, the package from Nikolai no doubt still on his mind, he doesn’t say any more about it.


“Fuck you,” Alina growls.

The sketch notebook doesn’t reply, but it doesn’t have to. It’s borne witness to failure after failure, its pages now slashed with the same black that stains her fingers. Doubtless her thighs are grimy with charcoal, too — it’s a lucky accident her trackies are black, too, or it’d look like an ink bomb went off in her lap.

For all this mess she’s made, nothing. Certainly nothing that equals that stupid crayon sketch, and she hadn’t even bothered to keep it.

Alina flicks through the oversized pages, trying to find anything salvageable, but it’s all chaos and shadows. The spine of a landscape she tried to capture has been entirely subsumed, along with the jagged spire of pine tree set against the sun. The only fragment of sense is a pair of eyes staring out at her from a pale wisp of nothingness.

Her heart thumps, stirring with the memory of seeing those eyes, and being seen by them.

The rest of his face has been lost to her mind’s eye, reduced to simple phrases. Angular. Handsome. Lanky. God, that grin. She’d know him if she saw him again, but here alone in this bedroom she can’t conjure them. But his eyes, veiled behind his sterling spectacles … those have stayed with her.

Alina jumps as her phone buzzes against her leg. There’s nowhere to wipe her hands, so she grudgingly rubs her fingers clean on her thigh before grabbing it.

Genya : ugh FINALLY done 😤 have a good afternoon?

She debates for a few seconds before replying.

Alina : More or less

Genya : 👀

Genya : wait, you didn’t actually go to the munch, did you?

Alina : I was already there when I got your message, u doofus

Genya : FUCK

Genya : babe, I’m SO SORRY 😭😭 I will make this up to you, pinkie promise

Any resentment Alina might’ve been holding fades into nothingness as she hears the words in her head in Genya’s earnest voice. She can feel herself smiling faintly as she swipes out a response.

Alina : It’s really fine, it wasn’t so bad.

Genya : oh? 👀

Alina stares down at her phone, tapping her forefinger against the smashproof case, thinking. She’s nearly talked herself out of saying anything, but then her phone beeps again.

Genya : 👀👀

Genya : girl you know I’m gonna keep going until you spill

Alina snickers before replying,

Alina : Everyone seemed really nice

Genya : does everyone have a name 👀👀👀

Genya : *?

Alina : Nah just the general vibe

Genya : oh okay

Alina : The lady who met us at the door said to look her up, how do I do that?

It’s true enough. The silver-haired woman had said as much when she greeted Alina, the invitation simply one part of the speech she no doubt gave everyone. But it’s one step closer to seeing him again, invisibly this time — and her stomach flips.

Genya : oh just find it on kinkatopia! Look me up, I RSVPd (oops) 😬

Genya : my handle’s MsTaylor

Genya : oh & if it’s Baghra you’re thinking of, she should be listed as one of the hosts

“Baghra,” Alina murmurs aloud. Yes, that was what Aleks had said.

Her phone beeps again.

Genya : fair warning, love, you’re free to scroll my pics but you’ll see all my ladyparts and I do mean ALL of them 😉

Alina’s cheeks burn at that, and she flips the phone over on the bedspread, as though Genya might catch her blushing through the phone screen.

Kinkatopia. It’s a remarkably simple answer, so simple that it hasn’t even occurred to her. The profile she posted years ago must be gathering digital cobwebs … but surely it still exists.

She pulls out her battered laptop, moving it carefully so as not to dislodge the power cable. Theoretically she could buy a new battery, but it never seems to be a high enough priority. She’s never far from an electrical socket anyway, hasn’t been for years.

Alina tugs off the pink knitted cap and runs her fingers over her head as the computer boots up, her hair short and snow white, curly wisps at the end still baby-soft.

Kinkatopia doesn’t even autofill in her navigation bar, and though the account is still — mercifully — linked to her email address, that’ll have to change. Alina Lantsov isn’t her anymore. It’s a shoe that never quite fit.

Seeing her profile stings, too. She doesn’t even bother to look at the whole thing before slapping the Edit button.

The prompts are bite-sized enough to confront one at a time.

Username. Koroleva. That’s been her handle since her earliest day surfing the ’net. If nothing else, at least this doesn’t have Nikolai’s stench all over it.

Role. Undecided. That’s what she’d changed it to when things had started falling apart. That, at least, is the same, too.

Relationships. It stings not to see Sturmhond listed, but of course he’s long gone. Probably on her profile now, though she’s too queasy to check. Single is cold, lonely, but it’s accurate.

Kink relationships. There are so many options, but none of them fit. For the briefest moment Alina considers emerging from her bedroom, finding Mal, explaining everything … but for what? To run from the barrenness of her life, scraped bare like the slumbering trees? It’d be insanity. 

She scrolls on.

Orientation. At least this is consistent, the word Queer familiar. Reassuring. Something her soon-to-be-ex-husband can’t take away from her.

Seeking. There are too many options here, too, most of them flitting away. Am I really seeking anything? Alina repositions her injured arm, propping it against her knee and gnawing a hangnail as she regards her choices.

Friendship. Events. Those she clicks quickly. A relationship seems like too much to ask for, let alone a lifetime relationship. A Play Partner seems too casual, like an invitation to be broken all over again. A Dominant or A Master/Mistress are too daunting, and A Submissive is simply laughable given her current state.

The profile section takes more thought, and she pokes around in a notepad for a few frustrating minutes before she thinks to look at Genya’s.

The profile for MsTaylor is unbelievably sexy, centered around a black-and-white photograph of a woman in a scanty bra-and-panty set, its crimson fabric the only splash of color. Her thighs and full lips are parted, and she stares haughtily from behind an ornate mask.

“Damn,” Alina murmurs. If Genya wasn’t her best friend in the world right now, and the only one keeping her sane… 

Her profile is equally polished. Wicked, kinky creature ISO all the world has to offer. I have a voracious sexual appetite, and I’m looking for partners to help me share in some serious (or casual!) pleasure. I am a very busy person, so don’t waste my time and I’ll return the courtesy. 

I practice RACK (Risk-Aware Consensual Kink), and informed consent is sexy as hell to me. I will NOT meet you in person, so don’t ask. 

Is this tab still open? Message me! xoxo MsT

Alina opens her profile in another tab and scowls at her computer screen, tapping out phrases and dragging them around until she’s satisfied.

Queer geek, coming back to the community after an extended break, trying to figure out where I stand with everything (not least of which is myself). Non-kink interests include art, DnD, and space wizards kissing. Slide into my DMs if you’ve got something funny to say, I’m always down for a laugh.

I only accept friend requests from people I’ve met. No exceptions. With that said, AMA, I’m an open book.

It’s good — or good enough to click Update .

Her photo is a cold slap in the face. Only the lower half of her face is in it, the hand wrapped around her throat belonging to someone who’s equally anonymous, but it doesn’t matter whether anyone else knows. She does, and that’s reason enough to change it.

She scrolls through her old pictures. Her younger self mugs prettily for the camera, her waist slimmer, her breasts higher and firmer. The snaps are too good to delete outright; they’re the only photos that exist, that ever will exist again, where she was normal. Whole. Her left arm upraised, bent, propping her up. Used unthinkingly. 

Alina wouldn’t even mind the pink line that cuts across the left side of her chest between her collarbone and the swell of her breast, except for the fact that what’s beneath renders these beautiful pictures obsolete. She’s not that person, and never will be again.

With a lingering glance at the closed door, she swipes on some lip gloss and yanks her sweater and tee up over her head in a single movement, not bothering to drag them off her arms. The front-facing camera seems to take forever to focus, and she fumbles with the button, but after a few attempts there’s something usable. Just one frame, from the tip of her nose to where the sweater cuts across the top of her breasts, more suggestive for the way she’s biting her lower lip than anything else.

Save for her scar, it’s anonymous, nothing different than she might find on a photo sharing site. But at least she knows it’s her, and no one else. And her stupid arm isn’t obvious.

A few filter-tweaks later and she posts it, the new profile picture splashing across her laptop screen when she refreshes. Then there’s no part of Nikolai left, not on her profile page — and she breathes easier, like an iron cage around her ribs has loosened.

She tugs her sweater and shirt back over her head, fingers trembling as she clicks back to Genya’s profile. The munch is listed in the top-right corner; one more tap of her trackpad and the event details unfurl before her.

Etherealki . That has to be Baghra, the round icon of her profile picture listed in the field that reads Host . The other circle belongs to Shu_Merc , which a quick mouse-over reveals to be Botkin.

There are several pages of attendees, and Alina quickly clicks to the full list. It’s too easy, surely he won’t have RSVP’d … but then it’s there before her.

Darkheart . 45M, Rigger.

Alina blinks stupidly as her heart races to catch up. It feels dirty, like she’s snooping to even find him here, but Kinkatopia’s privacy settings are legendary. If he doesn’t want strangers looking, he’ll have his profile locked down . And there’s only one way to find out.

She taps his hyperlinked username — and for a split second as the webpage goes blank, Alina thinks his profile is friends-only, and her stomach drops.

Then data pours through her computer, and in another blink the page is there, fully loaded and ready for her to read.

The profile picture alone makes her mouth pop open in shock. It’s professional quality, so good that she can’t be sure if it’s a model or actually him . It certainly could be; he’d seemed slim, powerful, and the man in the picture definitely isn’t some twentysomething. His muscles stand out in harsh relief, the deep V chiseled into his lower abdomen giving way to loose jeans that hang from his hips — and one hand is fisted beside his thigh, clutching a bundle of black rope. 

That makes Alina drag in a breath. My medium is rope . That’s what he’d said.

And he wasn’t lying: his gallery is full of breathtakingly beautiful images. Vibrant ropes of all different colors snake around the models’ bodies in coils and columns, trapping them in place and baring their bodies for the camera. Some are even suspended in the air — and those make Alina’s heart beat faster. 

The way they’re smiling … do they feel as free as they look?  

It’s as though they’re flying.

A few of the photos are set against a bookshelf, and she’s pleased to note some familiar titles half-lost in the bokeh: The Northern Lights , Atonement , Stardust . It’s an odd assortment, but one that’s close to her heart. Probably not even his, though. Who knows.

Most of the hundred-odd pictures are arranged in sets, but one woman is threaded throughout. She’s blonde, pale, graceful, clothed in a simple black bra and panty set in contrast to the rampant nudity in the others. Her face is always obscured by a black butterfly mask, but Alina can tell it’s her from the distinctive heart tattoo on her right hip, geometric and beautifully stylized.

Who is she? She clicks through the gallery faster; a lot of the models are identified by hyperlinked handles, but the woman stubbornly remains unnamed.

Then, finally, there’s one that’s captioned, My muse, Someone_Not_On_Kinkatopia .

Muse? The word makes her stomach curdle, even as she hates herself for it. We only talked, it’s not like I’m anything to him anyway…

The username links to a dead end, a placeholder profile with thousands of friends and a cheeky location (“Vatican City”) — and Alina sighs inwardly before clicking back.

She’d been in such a rush to perv his photo gallery that it’s only now she remembers to actually look at the rest of his profile.

Single — that makes the tension in her chest melt. Monogamous — that’s good, too. Relief blooms in her chest, warm and welcoming. Not that polyamory’s bad, it’s just not where I’m at right now.

That thought stops her short, and her fingertips are on the top of the screen, poised to slam the laptop shut as the next heartbeat hits. Slamming against her ribs instead of its light pattering as she realizes she’s already thinking of him with a sort of faint possessiveness. 

Fuck .

It’s because he’d talked to her like that. As though she was the only person that existed in the world, let alone the restaurant’s crowded back room. 

Alina takes a steadying breath. It’s not real. Just a reaction. She doesn’t have to pretend this profile page doesn’t exist; no one’s looking. No one will ever know that she looked.

Slowly, she lifts her fingertips from the top of the screen, and keeps reading.

Darkheart — Aleks — is a bisexual Dominant, with no D/s relationships save for an entry identifying him as the rope mentor for the House of Misfit Toys. Beside Seeking , only a few of the available options appear: Friendship , Events , A Play Partner, A Submissive .

The last one makes her heart skip, even though she hates herself for it in the next moment. A submissive … but not a relationship.

His profile is equally sparse. No pics as I’m in a public line of work, but I guarantee that I’m not a replicant. More than happy to share once I get to know you.

Then there are his kinks — and a frisson of excitement twists up Alina’s spine as she scans through the entries.

Aftercare. “Apologizing” with your mouth. Attention. Begging. Bondage. Butt plugs. Caressing. Choking. Collars. Consensual non-consent. Cute nerdy girls. Creampie. Cuddles. Double penetration. Erotic literature. Impact play. Master/slave. Orgasm denial. OTK spanking. Rough sex. Rope all over your body. Sadism. Sapiosexuality. Sleepy sex. Tying you up until you beg for more. Voyeurism.

A fistful of hair and a passionate kiss . That one makes her shiver, thinking of his perfect plush lips and how they’d feel pressed against her own.

She scrolls back through his photos, thinking — and only then does she notice that the blonde woman doesn’t appear in his gallery anytime during the last couple of years. Probably a past partner, then.

Alina’s about to click away when one final picture catches her attention, surprising her into laughing. It’s a grey cat with amber eyes, its muzzle going white with age. The distinguished creature is sitting at the top of a line of wooden stairs that lead down to a grassy lawn in the background — but its noble bearing is despoiled by a bonnet. The damn thing is so big that it practically swallows the cat’s rump, with only a tip of a white-ringed tail peeking out beside its neatly placed paws.

Mrs. Bates does *not* approve, reads the caption, and Alina giggles harder. It’s an Emma reference, it has to be, if he was as truthful about teaching English lit as he was about being a rope master.

Even the thumbnail of his profile picture in the upper corner of the screen makes her chew her lip, thinking. All this time she’s been snooping through his profile, she's been desperate to stay invisible, unperceived. All that could change with a few keystrokes.

Her fingers are trembling as she types out a comment below the picture. Not his profile, but the cat.

Bonnets are cool .

It’s simple. Stupid, even. But then she clicks Post , and her words are there in black and white.

Alina releases a slow breath, fingers trembling as she navigates back to her homepage. Her timeline is sparser than she recalls — no doubt a lot of her former acquaintances from Os Alta quietly defriended her when Nikolai did, taking his side automatically once she fled — but that’s fine. She’ll never go back, not after what he did.

A crimson flag appears on the menu bar at the top of the webpage, beside the envelope icon.

No. It’s too fast, it can’t be.

But it’s there, just as plain as her comment. A new message waiting in her inbox.

From: Darkheart
Subject: (none)

Hi

Chapter Text

Alina stares at the message, wide-eyed — and it seems to be staring back at her. Shitfuck, is he online?

A green dot gleams at her beside his name, and she’s sure that wasn’t there a few seconds ago. Of course there’s a read feature, too, the check mark below the message betraying her for peeking like goddamn Orpheus.

Hi , Alina types back, fingers stumbling over the keys in her nervousness. Typing one-handed is a pain in the ass, more likely to give her spray-and-pray results than precision. I like your cat .

An ellipsis appears, dancing in the bottom corner of the screen above the text field.

Darkheart : Me too. Sometimes she deigns to like me back.

Koroleva : Lol, are you secretly a dog person?

Darkheart : Hardly — and she chose me. The indignity of it all.

Koroleva : She chose you?

Darkheart : Just showed up out of the woods one day squalling for food, I couldn’t exactly turn her away.

The image of the dark-haired man being shouted at by a tiny, ancient-looking cat is too much — and Alina laughs aloud, startling herself as her own voice shatters the quiet.

“You alright?” Mal calls from his bedroom, the syllables muted through the closed door.

“Just a meme, thanks!”

She manages to quiet her laughter to snickering as her hand dances over the keyboard, pecking out letters one at a time, slamming the backspace key over and over again.

Koroleva : Clearly she knows a sucker when she sees one

Darkheart : Clearly, haha.

Darkheart : Do you have any pets?

A pang of sorrow goes through her. That was one of the things she and Nikolai had fought over, before—

Well, just before . Full stop.

Koroleva : Wish I could, but no. Turned out to be a lucky thing, given the divorce and all

Silence for a few moments that doubtless feel longer from the insistent, worried tattoo of her heartbeat. Divorce . It’s such a heavy thing, and it brings with it a flush of shame. The reminder of how fucked-up her life has become.

She doesn’t realize she’s holding her breath until the ellipse appears again, dancing as jauntily as before.

Darkheart : I was sorry to hear about that.

Alina’s mouth twists in a mirthless smile as she slams out a response:

Koroleva : Don’t be, he was a prick

Darkheart : Fair enough.

A pause. Her turn to ask a question, maybe?

Koroleva: How long have you lived in Os Kervo?

Darkheart : About five years — you?

Koroleva : Just a couple months

After a beat, she adds:

Koroleva : Don’t know if I’ll be staying long, I just have to get back on my feet

Darkheart : Be careful, that’s what I said, too.

Koroleva : Ruh roh

Darkheart : 🤣

So he knows how to use emojis. Alina breathlessly whiffs with laughter imagining him scrolling through the options to find the :rofl: face.

It makes her bolder.

Koroleva :  So English professor and rope, how does that go together?

Darkheart : Very well, actually.

Koroleva : Your upload gallery is —It takes her a couple of seconds to find the right word— impressive

Darkheart : You looked, eh? 

Is he smirking handsomely, imagining her scrolling through his pictures? Let him, he earned it.

Koroleva : I took a peek at your books, too

Darkheart : ?

Koroleva : The bookshelf with His Dark Materials — is that yours?

Darkheart: Oh! Yes, sorry.

Darkheart : Took me a second, no one’s ever asked about anything but the rope 😅

Koroleva : Call me weird

Darkheart : Offbeat, maybe. But certainly not weird.

Offbeat. Her lips curve in a secret smile.

Darkheart : So now that you’ve seen some of my art, is there anywhere I can find more of yours?

Alina taps the laptop’s casing, debating as her guts twist with commingled delight and terror. She could send him the link. She could . But what’s in there might send him running. It’s not all of her strangeness, to be sure, but it’s enough to make her tense with sudden worry.

Koroleva :  …ok but if I send it, know that this is all really old stuff

Darkheart : Noted.

She clicks the link, then pulls up another tab, hiding from the Kinkatopia chat history until the tab blinks. Even then it takes her a while to work up the guts to click it.

Darkheart : Damn, this is amazing.

Darkheart : And I’m noticing a theme... 👀

Here goes… 

Koroleva : Dirty reylo confirmed

She’s bracing for a salty response — or outright animosity — but the response comes quickly.

Darkheart : Seems only fair, after decades of obsession over that gold bikini.

The fuck? Alina stares at the response, half-grinning. If he’s serious, that alone makes him a thousand times more interesting than before. Rare is the guy who liked all Star Wars movies but the last one.

Koroleva : Exactly, EXACTLY

Koroleva : So glad you understand

Darkheart : I do.

Darkheart : And whether or not you’re “retired,” you’re very talented. The reylos are lucky to have you.

Koroleva : Thanks

She’s nervous enough to tease him. Just a little.

Koroleva : What do you get up to when you’re not dressing up your cat?

Darkheart : I’m pretty boring, honestly. Lots of grading, splitting firewood for the stove.

Both of those images are pleasant enough to bring a flush of warmth to the base of her spine. She can easily imagine him in some cosy home nestled amid venerably old trees, grading at the desk he no doubt keeps. Her lonely mind is only too happy to conjure up an extrapolation of what he must look like shirtless — and his profile picture does the rest.

Thank fuck he can’t see her face right now. All she can manage is a simple Yikes.

Darkheart : It’s all right, I don’t mind a quiet life.

Koroleva : The older I get, the more I find doing nothing to be supremely awesome

Darkheart : How about yourself? Any fun hobbies?

Koroleva : You mean like feline haberdashery? —She hesitates, trying to put it into words— I’m still trying to figure that out

Darkheart : How so?

Koroleva : A lot of the things I sed to to I can’t anymore

Fuck . She was going too fast — as per usual. But this isn’t Mal or Genya, this is someone who doesn’t know her. An English professor, no less.

Koroleva : *used, sorry

Koroleva : I type terribly & make a lot of typos

Darkheart : I’m not judging you on your ability to type one-handed, Alina. I promise.

Darkheart : (did I spell that right?)

The second message charms her lips into a crooked smile.

Koroleva : Lol yeah

Koroleva : Soooo yeah typing, most videogames, etc are off the table nowadays

Koroleva : Don’t hmu in a zombie apocalypse

Darkheart : On the contrary, I’d find you first.

Alina squints at her laptop, playfully suspicious.

Koroleva : Damsels in distress your thing?

Darkheart : You’d be the one who discovers something key about the zombie virus, or learns to trap them at the edge of your fortress hideout.

His message arrives just as she sends hers, the missives darting past each other in cyberspace — and Alina’s eyes go wide.

Koroleva : WOW, you put some thought into that

Darkheart : I think of strange tropes as I’m falling asleep.

Koroleva : I think of floating through space

It’s a curious thing to see written out. I’ve never told anyone that, not even Nikolai. Her golden-haired ex would’ve laughed, maybe even made a running joke of it, but something tells Alina that this man isn’t the same. Whatever cloth Nik might’ve been cut from, Aleks is … different. Classier, somehow, like the word erudite might actually fit him.

She pulls up the link and drops it in the chat window, watching as the words Moments in Space by Spinmeister appear in the bright blue thumbnail.

Aleks doesn’t respond right away — which is what makes Alina realize that up until now, he has been. Whatever else is going on in his life, he’s either extremely bored or making a point to respond promptly. Probably just because it’s a Saturday.

The ellipsis appearing in the bottom of the screen a few minutes later hits her like a jolt of electricity.

Darkheart : Oh wow, that’s a lovely song — and idea. Might steal them.

Koroleva : You can’t steal what’s freely given

The knock at her door makes her jump, and she hauls the laptop back from its precarious perch on the milk crate that functions as her bedside table. “Just a minute!”

It’s Mal, of course, greeting her with a steaming mug and a grin. “Thought you might like some tea.”

“Oh, thanks!”

His eyes flick past her shoulder to the bedroom. “I can put it down for you—”

“That’s all right, I can take it.”

It’s an awkward shuffle as he moves his hands around, hissing with pain as he cradles the hot mug long enough for Alina to grab the handle. “Sorry!”

“No pain no gain.”

Weird flex but okay. “Thanks, tea bro.”

His smile is more of a grimace. “Anytime.”

She closes the door again and returns to her bed, at a loss for where to put it. Not on the floor, that’s asking to kick it over — and trying to balance it atop a flat surface on the mattress is equally impossible. Finally she perches it on the edge of the milk crate slightly behind the laptop, safely out of the way of her nerve-deadened arm.

Darkheart : Then at least allow me to send a gift of my own.

The link below displays a banner of Instant Crush by Daft Punk ft. Julian Casablancas . Her headphones are nearby, and she plugs them in to listen.

It’s a bop — and more than that, her stomach twists with a hurricane of butterflies. Crush? Surely it’s just a good song; she can’t read more into it than that. 

It’s just a song. A good one, for sure … but just a song.

The singer is young, and his dark, wavy hair reminds Alina of art that’s popped up in her timeline.

Koroleva : That’s really good

Koroleva : I’m surprised no one’s called the singer the reylo baby instead of Dune’s own Timon Charizard

The message is away before she even realizes what she’s said — and then it’s too late, her cheeks screaming in mortification as she stares at the screen trying to will the words into nonexistence.

Fuck, fuck, FUCK!

Darkheart : WHAT? 🤣🤣

She sighs, pecking out the explanation one letter at a time rather than her usual pattering pace. 

Koroleva : Timothee Chalamet … it’s this whole weird joke

Darkheart : I figured from context, but WOW.

Darkheart : Clearly I’m missing out not being on stan twitter.

What? ” Alina snaps, as though the computer can explain.

Koroleva : Not to sound rude, but I didn’t even expect you to know the phrase “stan twitter”

Darkheart : I have a few younger friends who keep me in the loop.

Koroleva : Play partners?

Darkheart : Just friends, members of the House.

Darkheart : Interesting question, though 👀

It was too far. Of course it was, she knew it in her gut as she was typing the words. If he had play partners they’d be listed on his profile, wouldn’t they? And now that she’s opened the door, the ellipsis is shimmying again.

Darkheart : Do you have any?

Koroleva : Play partners? Lol no

Darkheart : Why lol?

Alina opened the door with what she’d thought was an innocent-sounding question, and now her pulse races as she tries to think of an answer.

Koroleva : I dunno, it just seems laughable

Darkheart : Being in a place for BDSM play or dating?

That anyone would find me attractive like this.

It’s too sad-sack to admit to a relative stranger, but she knows it’s true. The signs of age are starting to show in the extra curve of her belly, the way her breasts more hang than bounce as they once did, the way her jawline has softened. She wears the extra weight well enough, but it still bothers her. And that’s not even counting the puckered line that worms its way across her chest, the way her left bicep is distent with lymph fluid — or whatever has made its home there since the follow-up radiation.

Better to stick to the facts.

Koroleva : I’m past thirty and I’ve never been asked out before, I don’t think that’s about to randomly start happening now

Darkheart : Hmm, so you asked your ex out? Daring girl.

Girl . That’s laughable — and laugh she does, quietly enough that hopefully she doesn’t disturb Mal.

Koroleva : Haha maybe, though I guess I should’ve had better taste

Darkheart : What would you say if I asked you out?

What the fuck?

Her heart thumps sickeningly. He can’t be serious — not Mr. Tall-Dark-and-Gorgeous-Hands-y. He’s just being nice. Trying to welcome her to the area or whatever. Yeah, that’s gotta be it.

No sooner has Alina begun to process that than her laptop pings again.

Darkheart : Just for coffee or your beverage of choice — and in public, of course.

Koroleva : All the better to scream for help if I need to

Darkheart : If I wanted to have you screaming, Alina, it wouldn’t be in public.

Fuck! ” Alina gasps, something deep within her clenching pleasurably at the mere suggestion of his touch. He’s thinking about her like that , there’s no question about it now.

Koroleva : I bet you think you’re funny, don’t you?

Darkheart : Me? I’m hilarious.

She clamps a hand over her mouth to stifle the nervous giggles bubbling up in her  throat. Every new message is like being goosed by a live wire, making her nerves crackle with energy.

Darkheart : But I’m also honest. And if you’d like to ask around about me (always a good practice), please feel free.

Koroleva : Huh, really?

Darkheart : Really really.

Koroleva : Please hold

Alina tugs her phone out from under the curve of her thigh. There’s only one person she trusts who could possibly know about him — and her hand is trembling so badly it takes a few attempts to pull up Genya’s contact info.

Alina : Ok so let’s say I lied and ‘everyone’ did in fact have a name

Genya : GIRL

Genya : Ok that’s it

Genya : Gird your loins, I’m coming over

Chapter Text

Genya arrives twenty minutes later in a swirl of fruity perfume, the mouthwatering aroma of spiced vegetables emanating from a bag emblazoned with the words Thai Garden . In the decade since they met at university she’s only grown more beautiful, more confident, her very presence heady as she sweeps into the humble apartment.

Alina can’t help but be selfishly grateful that Genya’s stuck living in Os Kervo, too. Her fiery auburn hair and thousand-megawatt smile seem to make the dingy kitchen brighter — and Alina notices the glint of hunger in Mal’s eyes as he mutters a grudging hello. Nothing new there, Genya has that effect on everyone.

But Genya hardly seems to notice Mal — and soon the two women are holed up in Alina’s bedroom together, settling themselves on the comforter as Genya tosses her purple wool coat aside. “First things first, I love you, I missed you — and I brought dinner.”

“Aw, you didn’t have to do that!”

“Darling, dinner isn’t optional,” Genya snorts.

If my stomach has to growl, could it at least have the decency to be a little quieter? “I’ll pay you back.”

“Like hell you will.” Genya points a plastic fork at her, an accusation. “Which is not to say that you lack the capacity to do so — I know you’ve got your disability straightened out, huzzah for that — but that I’m not going to let you. To be clear.”

Alina regards her balefully. “You aren’t going to save up enough to move out of your folks’ basement buying me takeout.”

“Trust me, it’s not just ten bucks here and there that’s sinking me. They need a new water heater, and I can’t not help them,” Genya sighs, her amber eyes glittering with frustration, “but at the rate I’m going I’d need to clone myself.”

“What about finding a roommate?”

“And have a stranger up in all my weird shit? No thanks.” Genya’s eyes slide to the open laptop as Alina swipes a spring roll. “Speaking of strangers, let’s have a peek.”

Alina clicks back to Aleks’ profile, and Genya nods. “Oh yeah, I know him. Well— I don't know him-know him. He’s friends with David.”

The name sparks a fragment of memory. “The awkward one you like?”

Genya looks positively dreamy at the mention of him, her cheeks pinking with an adorable blush. “He’s so endearing. They’re both part of the House—”

“—of Misfit Toys,” Alina chimes in without thinking.

“You’ve heard of them!”

“Sort of.” Alina hesitates, but there’s no good way of asking except baldly — and the spring roll sticks in her throat as she swallows hard. “So you and he haven’t—

“Oh god no,” the other woman titters, thoroughly amused. “Not that I have any reason against it, he seems pleasant enough, but David…” She sighs again, lifting one shoulder in a halfhearted shrug as her good humor fades to an expression of dejected pining. Clearly she’s still holding out hope for him.

“And he’s not polyamorous?”

Genya shakes her head sadly. “Ugh, we’re like Romeo and Juliet, if Juliet had an insane libido and Romeo didn’t know how to talk to … well, anyone. Or simply didn’t like Juliet, I can’t really tell.”

“And you’re sure he knows you’re into him?”

“Alina, I’ve done everything but physically fling myself at him. And I may’ve even tried that once,” she huffs, adding quickly, “No comment.”

“Boys are dumb,” Alina quips, thinking of a t-shirt they once saw, a long time ago in a mall far away.

“Throw rocks at them,” Genya finishes sagely — and then they burst into giggles, cackling as they crack into the aromatic food. “God, we should’ve bought that shirt.”

“Agreed.”

The twinkle lights Alina strung up around the room a few weeks ago shine on Genya’s fiery hair as she nods at the screen. “Fucking hell, he’s fit, isn’t he?”

“How d’you know that’s him?” Alina glances at the envelope icon on the Kinkatopia toolbar, but there’s nothing. Maybe he’s busy — or just waiting like she asked.

“The watermark.” Genya’s perfectly manicured nails swipe over the trackpad, enlarging the image, and she points to the ghostly icon in a discreet corner of the photograph. “Jesper Fahey, he’s a local.” She arches an eyebrow, abruptly looking devious as hell. “And look, Darkheart’s older than us, too — so he probably comes housebroken.” She glances significantly at the bedroom door, which is mercifully shut. “Unlike some of the male persuasion.”

“Genya!” Alina hisses, but the other woman only shrugs, unrepentant.

“What? It’s true. The number of times I’ve been hooking up with a guy our age and there isn’t even a roll of toilet paper near to hand in his bathroom, let alone a wet wipe on the bedside table…”

Alina’s heart leaps into her throat as a red flag pops up beside her Kinkatopia inbox icon. She clicks into it, brow knitted in confusion at the unfamiliar sender

From: Dan420
Subject: hi

hey cutie

Genya seems to know what’s going on immediately. “Look, this is exactly what I mean. No profile picture, no profile, probably just some generic here looking for females bullshit.”

Alina clicks into the sender’s profile, blinking as she discovers that Genya’s assessment was eerily accurate. “How the hell did you know?”

“The accounts are a dime a dozen, love,” Genya says, rolling her eyes in disgust. “Horny men — and I hate to gender it, but it is men — who signed on during the pandemic.” She regards Alina, suddenly serious. “Don’t trust anyone you don’t know on here, all right? Promise me.”

“Okay mum.”

“That’s my good girl, being safe on the internet.” Then Genya’s smile returns. “Let’s go back to looking at the hot zaddy, shall we?”

Zaddy? ” Alina splutters.

“Yeah, I’d call him daddy in a bloody heartbeat. But that’s just me.”

Alina pinches the bridge of her nose, mock horrified — but her body twinges with awareness at the taboo word. The thought of using it with him .

“Nice comment, that’s cute,” Genya laughs as she finds the bonneted cat. She clicks back to Aleks’ profile picture, tilting her head to and fro, peering at it. “He does have a sort of unattainable vibe going. I’ve never seen him with anyone at events, apart from a rope bunny here or there.”

“Rope bunny?”

“A model, basically. Someone who likes being tied up and shown off.”

The thought of those huge hands of his skimming over her body, gentle yet firm, holding her in place while rope whispers over her skin … Alina tenses to hide the ripple dancing up her spine, an ellipsis of pure energy.

“Have you already talked to him?”

“Yeah, at the munch. And we’re, uh … messaging,” Alina admits.

Alya you brat! Why didn’t you tell me?”

She ducks aside, yelping as Genya smacks her good shoulder with a pillow. “I’ve been trying, you steamroller!”

“I’m not a steamroller,” Genya pouts, and Alina wriggles her hand up into the cuff of her sweater, keeping her spring roll-sticky fingers away from Genya’s auburn hair as she pats her head.

“You’re a very pretty steamroller, does that help?”

“With a bigass bow on my head,” Genya mutters. “Cockpit. Cabin. Whatever. ” She spins the laptop toward her and scrolls down to the conversation thread with Aleks. Before Alina can protest, she’s scrolling through, scanning the conversation before turning back to Alina. “ Woman, he’s asking you out!”

“He just said it hypothetically,” Alina counters.

“He posed it hypothetically and then invited you to ask around about him. ” Genya’s glossy pink lips hang open, curved in an incredulous smile. “Ball’s in your court, babes.”

Genya spins the laptop back toward her, but Alina doesn’t reach for the keyboard. Just readjusts her arm, propping it on her knee. In the excitement of everything she’s forgotten to take her evening meds, and painful static bleeds through her flesh.

“If you don’t like him—” Genya begins gently, but Alina shakes her head.

“It’s not that, Gen. He’s very likeable.”

“Oh is he,” the redhead teases, fluttering her long lashes.

Maybe Alina could laugh, too, if she wasn’t at such a loss. “Gen… I don’t know how to do this.”

“Do what, love?”

“All of this .” She gestures at the screen, and thankfully Genya nods, the wrinkle between her brows smoothing with understanding.

“Is this because of Calcifer?”

The name makes her rasp out a laugh. Calcifer . There hadn’t been any better name for a tiny demon that was close to her heart. Even now she feels like Sophie Hatter, old beyond her years. Ready to be done with all this shit, not starting over past the vertiginous hill of thirty.

“Sort of.” Alina resists the urge to bite her nails, instead twisting her fingertips into the soft fabric of her trackies. “Like … honestly, best case scenario, there is a twenty-five percent chance I won’t be here in five years.”

Her heart sledgehammers extra hard for that. Punishing her for speaking the words aloud for the first time. It’s not like anyone was there to hear it from the doctors but Alina. No parents, no husband. Just her.

Until now.

“Twenty-five?” Genya breathes — and fuck , for a flash she looks stricken before she composes herself. “Damn.”

“And let’s say, best case, things work out between us. Everything’s good. Great. Wonderful. He turns out to be just as perfect and funny and sexy as he seems, and we fall in love. And then in five years” —Alina gestures to her arm, frustration stirring in her gut, a dragon best left to slumber— “it’s this all over again. Only this time I’ve already reached my lifetime dose of the chemo drugs that helped save me before. So I can’t do that again.”

Genya only watches her, lips parted, her huge eyes luminous. Stunned, probably.

“I’m just … gone,” Alina mutters. “And it’s like a dead plant getting pulled up out of the ground. It leaves a hole in everything that’s left behind.” She pauses as the knot gathers in her throat, but she tamps it down. Burying it in the barren graveyard of her chest, the place that’s malfunctioning. “I got lucky with Nikolai not giving a fuck, I doubt I’ll get that lucky again.”

For a horrid moment, Alina wishes she could switch places with Genya. Go to work, out for drinks with friends, cut a sexual swath through men and women. Perfect. Whole.

But then it passes.

Better that it’s her. The person with no family to speak of, no parents, no siblings, only a scant handful of friends now scattered to the winds. The hole that Alina leaves when she screams her way out of the world will be humble. Virtually painless.

Then Genya reaches forward and takes her hand — and her skin is so warm that it startles Alina out of her bitter spiral. Her amber eyes flash, refusing to back down.

“Hey, that was not luck, ” Genya insists. “Nikolai was a goddamn coward, and I’m glad he’s out of your life, because you deserve better.” She presses her lips together, heaving a sigh through her nose as she regards Alina. “Listen, I am not going to tell you that you don’t have a right to be scared about the future, but — and I might be talking completely out of my arse here, sweetie, because I know I can’t possibly imagine what you’re going through — my therapist told me this thing, and it might apply.” She hesitates, but Alina’s silent, waiting for her to go on. “It’s this: you have to choose your pain.”

Alina wrinkles her nose. “Huh?”

“Like, you’re right — if you pretend the cancer might not come back and it does, that’s one kind of pain,” Genya explains cautiously. “But let’s say it doesn’t, and you’re in that seventy-five percent … then you’ve been living like there’s a shadow over your head when there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. And that’s another kind of pain to choose.”

“Schrodinger's shadow,” Alina mumbles, but she doesn’t resist as Genya cages her hand in her considerably neater and less spring roll-y ones.

“Love, you can’t control what life throws at you, all you can do is control how you react. And maybe, just maybe, after everything you’ve been through there are some good surprises waiting.”

Alina sticks out her tongue. “I hate it when you make sense.”

Genya grins. “I know. Just be honest with him — and yourself.” She squeezes Alina’s hand, punctuating her soft words. “It’s okay to want things, Alya. Think it over before you say no.”


The sky is dark when Genya takes off, the night sky glittering with the razor-edged shards of stars. Their breath clouds the air beneath the porch light as they exchange a smile — and then Genya regards her sternly again. “So what are we going to do?”

“Meet in a public location, and set up my safe text with you if we do, y’know … see each other.” Just one day, and it feels like her entire library-quiet existence has been upended. Two months she’s been in Os Kervo, every day the same.

Until this one.

“And no playing on the first date,” Genya prompts.

Alina glowers wryly. “You are just bounding to conclusions, aren’t you?”

“I’m telling you what you need to know to keep you safe, my love,” the other woman says patiently, ignoring Alina’s curmudgeonly attitude. “This isn’t like vanilla dating. In a lot of ways it’s better, because your sexual preferences are right out there in the open — but there are predators, too. And you have to be careful.”

Unease stirs in Alina’s gut. “Have you ever—”

“Almost.” Genya smiles tightly. “But I made mistakes — ones I’m not going to let you make. Go with your gut above all, okay?”

A few more pleasantries and she’s gone, disappearing into the shadows toward her car, colorfully cursing the cold. 

Alina zips up her jacket and picks her way around to the back of the house, walking slowly so she doesn’t trip on the odd tree root in the moonlight. She ducks her head, hurrying past the warm yellow rectangle of Mal’s window. 

I’m not doing anything wrong, she tells herself, the tip of her nose already tingling from the chill — and it’s true. Probably. She didn’t specifically ask him about his stance on weed, but it’s the only thing that helps when the creeping terror of anxiety begins to claim her.

She crouches against the back wall of the duplex, pinning the small brown box between her left forearm and her breast as she screws the one hitter into the dugout, filling the reservoir with a fat plug of ground flower.

The flick of the lighter is loud as a stick cracking underfoot, and Alina glances around at the windows of the surrounding houses. Where they’re not darkened they’re obscured by shades and curtains; no one’s looking out here.

Being alone — truly alone, where she can’t be startled by a door opening — is worth the biting cold. The whole world’s become brittle with it, every fallen leaf and blade of grass transformed in this crystalline terrarium.

She draws deeply, lungs stuttering at the icy, smoky kiss, but the taste is just what she needs. The whirling chaos in her mind starts to quiet, not vanishing altogether but compartmentalized. Veiled behind velvet curtains, letting her try to get a grip on everything that’s close.

Click . Drag. Hold in the hit for a few seconds. It’s a transgression to smoke at all when edibles exist, when so much has been done to keep her breathing, beating, living . But the ache in her chest makes the living part easier, wrapping her awareness in a soft, warm quilt.

Alina’s about to take another puff when something rustles in the underbrush, and she pauses, thumb poised on the lighter. Maybe it’s that fat squirrel that sometimes hops through the backyard burying chestnuts from the neighbor’s tree, its tiny paws scrabbling through the too-long grass and patting it down to hide its treasures.

The rustling stops, and there’s only silence again. Alina waits five seconds, ten, fifteen, but whatever it was, it’s gone.

Her good thumb rolls on the flint wheel, and as the fire sparks to life, a pair of eyes gleam at her from the shadows.

Jesus! ” She only barely manages to keep the bat pinched between her lips as the flame gutters. There’s no crashing in the brambles, though, no telltale sounds of an animal running off — and when she flicks the lighter again, the eyes are still there, flaring with yellow-green light.

A cat. She can pick out its silhouette as she blinks. The creature is sitting at the edge of the yard where the grass gives way to a sprawling patch of marsh, brazen as all hell. It doesn’t stir, just narrows its eyes in mild annoyance as a porch light from the house next door spills past the fence. The thing is huge , a massive pile of black fluff that could be mistaken for a raccoon, and the tip of one of its tufted ears is missing.

“Hello there,” Alina says quietly.

The cat only watches her, probably sizing her up, too. The glowing lanterns of its eyes blink, just once, and a pink tongue emerges to swipe over its whiskers.

I wanna touch the floof . It’s a dumb impulse, one that could lead to scratches or far worse — but the cat is just so giant and fluffy, all sense crumbles.

She steps forward, and the cat hunkers for a second before bolting into the shadows of the swamp.

“Guess you’re not a tame lion, either,” Alina mutters, a smile teasing her lips as she stares at the now-empty spot where the cat had been. The only trace of its passage is a tuft of dark fur, clinging to a browning thistle.

Between the smoke and the cat she’d entirely forgotten what’s waiting for her inside, until she arranges herself on the bed again and the screen is there before her.

Kinkatopia . She hasn’t thought of it for months, and today it’s suddenly become everything.

Koroleva : Please hold

Absolutely nothing since that.

Her stomach surges, a wave of excited terror cresting in her as she types.

Koroleva : So I’ve made inquiries

Alina stares at the screen waiting for the trio of dots, but there’s nothing.

After a minute of waiting, she pulls up another tab, trying to lose herself in trending videos. It’s no use; her eyes keep flicking to the top of the screen, waiting, waiting.

Twenty minutes later the Kinkatopia tab blinks with a notification — and Alina can’t click over to it fast enough.

Darkheart : Have you, now.

Koroleva : Seems you are rumored to be a decent guy

Koroleva : Possibly

Darkheart : On the contrary, I’m a very indecent man, but only in consenting circumstances 😈

“Fuck,” Alina breathes, her heart throbbing in her chest again. It’s not like being stalked, not in the bad way, just … circled. Like he’s a sleek panther prowling around her in a clearing.

Darkheart : But to the public … yes. I’m respectable. Ish.

A link appears to Os Kervo community college, an edu hyperlink. It looks safe enough — and she clicks through.

Faculty, the page header announces, and she scrolls down, scanning the faces until she finds the one that makes her inhale sharply.

Aleksander Morozova, M.A., PhD. Senior Lecturer and Director for English Literature Program  

His phone extension and email address are listed, too, beside a photo of him that puts the profile image on Kinkatopia to shame, even though he is fully clothed. His ink-dark eyes blaze at her from the static image, vivid behind the sheen of his glasses. The dark shirt and simple blazer suit his lithe frame, and the patches at his elbows make her grin. 

Yes. Yes, that’s him. She’d thought she remembered what Aleks looked like, but that was a pale conjuring compared to this. Not that she’s willing to let him know it, of course.

Koroleva : Showing off?

Darkheart : Showing you that I’m a real person with a real life, not some fuckstick looking to get off.

Oh. Alina stares at the words, blood thrumming through her veins. That’s not at all the answer she expected.

Koroleva : Is this how you woo all the ladies?

Darkheart : Oh yes, scores of them. I’m beating them off with a stick as we speak.

Alina snorts, rolling her eyes. He’s probably inundated with swooning students; what he’s doing playing mind games with her this Saturday night is a mystery. Surely he can’t be that bored.

In any event, he’s opened a door — and she can’t stop herself from walking through it.

Koroleva : You just wanted to put the words beating off together in a sentence, didn’t you?

Darkheart : Guilty as charged, but unrepentent.

Koroleva : Is the stick you’re wielding to beat em off the aforementioned fuckstick?

Darkheart : Precisely XD

Koroleva : I truly don’t understand how you have both sadism and cuddles listed as your kinks

Darkheart : And I’m fascinated that size kink is in yours.

Fuckshitballs, ” Alina snaps, twitching away from the laptop screen as her eyes flare. She hadn’t even thought about him looking through her kinks, though she probably should’ve. That’s clear in retrospect.

Before she can think up a response the ellipse is already dancing again, longer this time.

Just when she’s about to vibrate out of skin with anticipation, her computer pings. She hasn’t even finished reading the first message before the second one blinks onto the screen.

Darkheart : Would you like to explain to me what that means, maybe at the Zombie Walk tomorrow night? The whole town turns out, you’d be eminently safe.

Darkheart : (and in case it’s not clear, this is me asking you out on a date 😉)

“What?” Alina glowers at the screen as though it’s deceiving her. “ What?!

“Alina, are you—”

“No, don’t!” she screeches, but the door’s already open, Mal’s head popping through.

She instinctively tries to slam the laptop shut, but the computer slips to the side, knocking into the mug that’s perched precariously beside it. Then there’s lukewarm tea everywhere, gushing across her keyboard like the flooding of Isengard.

“God dammit! ” Alina howls, yanking the power cable out of its slot and dumping the computer facedown on her bed. She stares at the splayed thing, helpless as nausea curls in her gut.

The battery . Maybe the laptop’s decrepitude saved it, maybe she cut the power fast enough. There won’t be any way to know, not for a day at least.

“Fuck.”

“Alina, I’m…” Mal’s voice stirs her, and she lifts her head. He’s standing in the open doorway, his hazel eyes wide and helpless as he shifts his weight. “I didn’t mean—”

“I know,” Alina sighs, trying to quash the scream that’s building inside her chest. “I know you didn’t mean, Mal, but…”

It’s her arm’s fault, really. A year ago she could’ve caught the damn computer as it slid, but now her hand lolls uselessly, fingers failing to stretch, to splay, to grip.

“I’m just gonna leave it,” Alina says dully. Her bedspread is damp and smells of juniper and bergamot; she scoots the laptop aside, letting it find a dry spot to drip. All she can do now is wait — and her window to the world beyond Os Kervo just became that much smaller.

Mal looks like she’s just kicked him. “I’m really sorry. Truly.”

“It’s all right. Just knock next time, right?” she adds quickly. “Like, I mean, wait until I tell you it’s okay.”

His smile is shamefaced. “Didn’t realize you were that jumpy.”

“Well, I was looking at porn.”

He stares at her, laughing for a moment before his brow wrinkles. “Wait, really?”

Alina just flashes her brows, and with a final confused glance he wanders back out. Leaving the door open, of course. 

Men.

She heaves herself to her feet and crosses the room to shut it. There’s a lock, too, one that she’s never used before but does now, twisting it shut with a reassuring clunk before making her way to her phone.

Once again, the message from Darkheart is sitting there, patiently awaiting her response. It’s like fate and that accursed mug of tea have conspired to coax her out of her comfy troglodyte lair, luring her toward the man whose obsidian eyes dance with mischief.

Koroleva : Zombie Walk? You sure know how to tempt a girl, Professor Morozova ;)

Koroleva : (and in case it’s not clear, this is me saying yes)

Chapter Text

Snow .

Alina gazes up into the nighted sky, dark clouds overhead streaked pink with the Os Kervo twilight. These aren’t just delicate little snowflakes either, but cottony puffs that coalesce out of the dark vault as though by magic, floating down in an unrelenting torrent to caress her cheeks.

Last year at this time she was watching it from outside, snow blanketing the world as she got sicker, weaker, hauling herself to and from the hospital as her numbers tanked over and over again. Was it really a year ago that she took The Bad Fall? It feels like two, at least — and whether from the cold or the abrupt memory, her ribs ache.

Maybe I should’ve asked Genya to wait with me. The warmth of the car had been soporific, but at least her nose wasn’t running, and Genya’s presence alone was eminently reassuring. She’d doted on Alina like a proper mum, reminding her of the plan — and she runs through it in her head again to keep her mind off the creeping chill.

Meet him. Send Genya the safe text. Listen to my gut. Update Gen if we move.

If I feel a red flag, ditch.

The last one is the one that makes her nervous, if for no other reason than its unlikeliness. Or its seeming unlikeliness. She has no reason to feel optimistic, but that ripcord isn’t one she suspects she’ll have to pull. Maybe it’s Aleks’s obvious status in the local kink community, maybe him showing her his public face so unabashedly — but either way he’s accountable .

Maybe that’s how he charmed Mrs. Bates into her bonnet. The thought makes her lips tilt up, and she catches herself before she’s fully grinning into the gathering night like a lunatic.

A man appears around the corner of the line of buildings, barely a silhouette, but it makes fire run down her spine. She straightens, staring but trying not to seem like she’s staring, a trick that takes all her mental spoons to accomplish. By the time she’s worked up a decent semblance of remembering how to act human, he’s drawn even with her.

It’s not Aleks . The breath gushes out of her lungs, relief and disappointment tangling together in a cloud of warm vapor that evaporates like her hopes.

Maybe he’s forgotten — or worse, changed his mind.

“Fuck,” she huffs out between teeth clenched against chattering. Six thirty, they’d said, and it’s got to be past that by five minutes at least—

“Alina?”

She spins so fast that one heel slips on a patch of black ice — and then his hands are at her waist, steadying her.

Aleks is so close. So big , like his body could devour hers if he embraced her properly.

But he only pulls away once she’s sure of her footing, still coiled as if worried he might have to catch her again. “I’m so sorry, I—”

“No, no, thank you,” Alina insists as she draws back. Her cheeks prickle with heat that’s so intense it’s painful against the autumn cold, her very skin a battleground as she stares up at him. Fuck, he’s so handsome, like he fell out of the godsdamn sky.

“You, er—” His dark gaze flits down before returning to hers, his brow faintly furrowed. “You have tape on your boot.”

She follows his gaze to the strip of patterned pink argyle, artlessly stuck along one seam. “Yeah, it leaked.”

“Ah,” he says, smiling curiously as though he’s charmed by her four-dollar solution.

There’s a strange sort of click in her vision as she tries to reconcile the man standing before her with the one that she’s been messaging. She tried to stay busy today, forcing herself to keep her mind occupied so she wouldn’t dwell, wouldn’t build him up in her mind. But no, he really is this vibrant in real life.

“So, uh, this is the annual Zombie Walk.” Aleks gestures airily before shoving his hands into the pockets of his black leather jacket — which is an entirely unexpected choice, especially given the suit coat of his academic portrait. Between that, the simple sweater and jeans, he looks more ready to rock up to a party than teach a class.

Her left hand is already tucked safely in her own pocket, and she mirrors it with her right, folding her fingers into her palm to warm them as she glances around. The village is teeming with people in spite of the snow, the main street blocked off to allow pedestrians to wander freely. Friendly light from the shops lining the town spills out into the street; all doors are thrown wide, allowing the costumed populace to roam in and out at will.

“When you said zombie walk I didn’t expect it to be so … crowded. ” She offers a wry laugh. “Guess movies and tv did warn us the contagion would spread quickly.”

Mercifully, he chuckles, too. “That they did.”

“I’m glad to find you reasonably unaffected.”

Yes, well…” He trails off, chagrined, and draws a dark bundle from his pocket. It falls open as he holds it up; it’s a face mask, zombie-themed to suit the occasion.

“Seriously?” Alina giggles.

“Gotta get in the holiday spirit, right?” Aleks hooks the loops over his ears, and even though the print is pretty horrific, she hardly notices it for the way his eyes are blazing at her from above the dark fabric. “How do I look?”

His hand on my throat, the other in my hair, staring into me like that as he demands my submission … Alina swallows hard. “Terrifying.”

“Hm, maybe not then.” He pulls the mask off and stuff it back into his pocket with a rueful smile. “I don’t want to scare you. Not straightaway.”

His roguish wink sends a rush of heat coursing between her thighs, and she guffaws nervously. “Sadist.”

“Not technically an insult when it’s accurate,” Aleks counters, his grin widening with mischievous pleasure. Then he jerks his chin, indicating the shop that’s nearest, the words Navigator Comics & Games glowing over its door in emerald neon. “Come on, let’s go inside and warm up.”

Alina peers up at him again as they move toward the door, but he returns her gaze evenly. 

“Why are you giving me that look? I’m not going to argue with you for calling me a sadist.” She turns ahead again, yanking the door open just in time to hear him mutter, “ Masochist.

Awareness zings up her spine, and she grins but doesn’t turn back. Not until he’s past the threshold, too, the overhead light making his hair shine sterling as his glasses fog up. “If you get bitten by one of the infected tonight, do remember I specifically told you not to call on me during a zombie apocalypse.”

“And do remember I told you that you’d be the first one I’d go to, nonetheless,” Aleks replies in the same impish tone. “So if anything goes wrong tonight, I’m counting on you to get me out of it.”

There it is: the closing of an invisible loop as he gazes down at her, eyes crinkling with mirth. Not that she had doubts, but the reassurance that it really was him she’s been messaging makes Alina’s chest flood with heat.

If I wanted to have you screaming, Alina, it wouldn’t be in public.  

This man actually said that to her.

Alina knows that she’s grinning like a doofus, but she composes herself and shakes her head, narrowing her eyes in playful suspicion. “Have you always got something clever to say?”

“So you think I’m clever,” Aleks says, arching an eyebrow.

“Too clever for your own good, maybe.”

“I doubt that.”

“Aw, Critical Role!” It’s the only thing that could distract her at a time like this — and she’s grateful to have an excuse to avert her eyes from Aleks’s as she hurries over to the display of minifigs. The store is narrow, the displays overrun with geekery from a plethora of fandoms, and the aisles are just as crowded. It takes a bit of negotiating, but finally she’s standing before her prize, drinking in the creatures of Wildemount in all their miniature glory. “Ooh, Echo Knight…” 

“You play DnD?” He looms beside her in her peripheral, his spiced scent enfolding her, warm and musky and utterly delicious.

“I’m a fan — never actually played, though.” Words flow more easily when she’s looking away from him, focusing on the detailed figurines. “I had a lot of free time last year, so I worked my way through The Mighty Nein.” From a hospital bed.

“Who’s your favorite character?”

“Mm…” She steals a glance at Aleks. The image of being curled up on a couch beside him for a four-hour marathon of hilarious nerd improv has wormed its way into her mind, refusing to be banished. Fuck. “I’m going to go with Sam Riegel’s face every time does a commercial.”

Aleks’s chuckle runs through her veins like molten gold. “That’s cheating.”

“Okay, fine, his flask.” He must watch it, too, because he snickers at the reference to the series of increasingly preposterous props, all emblazoned with a secret in-joke or message to the show’s millions of viewers. “You?”

He only thinks for a moment. “The Gentleman.”

“Ah, a mysterious man who had enough game to get with Jester’s sexy mum…” She squints up at him, trying to ignore the way her heart skips as he turns to regard her, too. “Yeah, I can see that.”

“Oh, Jester,” Aleks hums admiringly. “I do miss her.”

“I got winked at by a Jester at Ren Faire this summer.”

He blinks. “Seriously?”

“We were in the tavern tent and I completely blanked so I just screamed, Tiefling! ” Alina admits, lips tilting at the memory of the blue-painted cosplayer even as her heartbeats grow faster, lighter. “And she must’ve known I meant her, because she looked back at me and winked.”

“You didn’t go to talk to her?”

She shakes her head. “Straight afterward I had a panic attack from being around so many people and we had to leave.”

“Oh.” He looks around the store as though suddenly realizing how many people are around them, clogging the claustrophobic aisles. “Do you want to take a walk by the park? It’s colder but not this packed.”

“Yes, thanks. Wait.” The safe text. Alina pulls her phone out of her jacket pocket and taps out a quick message, using the coded phrase they’d agreed on. Genya’s suggestion, of course. Sulking gives you wrinkles. Heading to the park. Alina tucks the rectangular brick away again, nodding. “Alright. Now I’m ready.”

The corner of his mouth twitches, like he’s on the verge of an approving smile. “Good.”

Alina’s breaths come easier once they’re nearing the front of the shop, her eyes focused on what’s ahead as they scoot outside. The broad main street rolls away down to the harbor, a quayside park illuminated by jade and amethyst lights that converge at the gazebo. Halloween isn’t for days yet, but merrimakers dressed as witches, superheroes, and Minecraft creepers mill through the town center, giggling as they brush past.

“Are you from this area originally?” Aleks asks, his low, musical voice threatening to make her knees shake.

Alina shakes her head. “I grew up in Keramzin, actually. It’s, like … an hour away? Head southeast, basically, until you get to the middle of nowhere.”

He favors her with a laugh — one that isn’t as goofy as hers, perhaps, but isn’t far off. “And your family?”

Here comes the hard stuff. “My parents aren’t around anymore,” she says carefully.

Even with her eyes fixed on a trio of dinosaurs waddling in the road ahead, she can hear him frowning. “Oh, I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.”

“Do you say that a lot?”

“Hmm?” The question startles her into scowling up at him, just in time to catch him raking his fingers through his hair. Bet it's as soft as my chemo curls.

“Well, you said it about your ex and your parents,” Aleks explains, his angular features drawn with concern.

“Oh.” Did I? He looks so worried, she hurries to reassure him: “Well, I do have some good friends. Mal, who I’ve known on and off since kindergarten, and Genya. We’ve been friends since college — so even if Os Kervo isn’t exactly home I’m not alone, either.”

All he says is, “Hmm.” Like he knows how empty her life is, like she’s simply drifting along. Waiting.

Ask him something. Anything. “What about your family?”

“My grandmother raised me, but she passed away a long time ago.”

“I’m sorry,” Alina murmurs. “Any siblings?”

He shakes his head. “You?”

“Nope. And you’ve been here for five years?”

Aleks snorts mirthlessly. “You could say the place has grown on me like a tumor.” His face goes slack with shock as he realizes what he’s said. “Fuck, I’m sorry, didn’t even think—”

“There’s nothing to be sorry for,” Alina interrupts, half-laughing at the ridiculousness of his worry. “It’s not like you saying the word tumor is going to make anything spontaneously manifest inside me that isn’t already there, I promise.”

He tilts his head, still looking sheepish as they cross the street to the park, the sidewalk narrowing to a footpath as it cuts through the grassy slope. “All the same…”

“So, you’ve lived here for five years,” she says lightly.

“Five years,” Aleks agrees.

“You just decided, wow, this totally overlooked and unique-smelling fishing town, that’s for me.

He chuckles faintly, the sound tight before he hesitates. “There was a woman.”

Alina’s stomach drops — even though it shouldn’t. Was. Past tense, As in, not currently involved with. “The one with the heart tattoo?”

“You really did make inquiries about me,” he says, lifting an eyebrow with what Alina hopes is amusement.

“I just guessed, honestly.” She steals a glance at him, but his face is neutral enough. “What, er … happened? I mean, feel free not to answer,” she finishes in a rush.

“She left me.”

He says it simply, if bitterly, and Alina shoves her hands deeper in her pockets, staring out at the midnight-dark ocean. She doesn’t know where else to look. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.” He’s not mocking her words, but echoing them. “That was a few years ago, I haven’t really dated much since.”

“You must have students throwing themselves at you,” Alina mutters — and thank fuck, Aleks laughs quietly again.

“I do, but it’s a hard limit for me. I don’t do that sort of power dynamic.”

She wants to look at him, desperately, but she forces herself to keep staring straight ahead. “So what do you do? Like, how does kink dating work? Nikolai — my ex — and I, we were already together when…” Her voice cracks, and she swallows hard, her throat somehow dry and sticky all at once.

“…you found the community?” Aleks supplies, and she meets his gaze as she nods. He’s watching her as coolly as the air, unreadable. “Depends on the person. Some prefer a kink-focused relationship without emotional entanglements. For others, they can’t compartmentalize that way, so it’s both kink and emotion.”

Work, kink, whatever kind of home life and friends he has… Alina’s heart drums in the hollow cavern of her chest. He must be able to compartmentalize really well.

“Where do you fall?” she asks, the syllables stilted with dread.

He lifts one shoulder in a helpless shrug, and shakes his head. “I can’t separate things like that.”

“Oh thank fuck,” she gushes, so relieved that she could laugh. “Me neither.”

“Good.” Aleks’s full lips twitch, wariness melting away as he gazes down at her. “Total non sequitur, but are you hungry? The Ciderhouse donuts are not to be missed.”

She grimaces. “I have to warn you, I eat like three raccoons in a trench coat. It’s all fury, zero form.”

A laugh bursts out of him, so loud that a few of the closest passersby jump. “Fair warning.”

“Mal actually calls me Crumbola,” Alina says dryly as they turn back, heading toward the bright line of shops once more.

“That’s kind of him.”

“He really is kind.” She hates to admit it, but it’s the truth: “Mal makes most of my meals nowadays — the ones I can’t yeet into a microwave.”

“You’re fortunate to have such a good friend.”

“It’s been good getting to know him again. Genya, too.” She snickers, the sound shivering from the way her teeth are chattering. “This is a whole different side of her I never knew about.”

“Does it shock you?” he drawls, and the way his eyes glitter makes her wonder if he’s teasing or serious.

“I’m only shocked I didn’t realize it sooner. She’s so … just” —Alina screws up her brow as she flounder for the right word— “ comfortable in her own skin. I suppose she ran out of fucks sooner than most of us.”

Aleks sighs wistfully. “That sounds nice, not having any fucks left to give.” He glances around, catching himself only too late. When he speaks again, his voice is lower, and he’s so close that his arm brushes against Alina’s good one. “I have to keep that side of my life locked down, so unfortunately, I have to keep consulting the fuck merchant to procure more.”

“What is the going rate for a fuck nowadays?” Alina banters unthinkingly, only realizing what she’s saying as the words fall out of her mouth.

Aleks roars with laughter, his steps slowing as he howls.

“Dammit,” she hisses, mortified. “I’m sorry— I only meant—”

“No, go on, say that louder,” he manages through his wheezes. “Maybe if I’m really lucky some of my students will’ve heard.”

Alina’s cheeks burn so hot that the breeze feels like nuzzling an iceberg. Hopefully he’s serious about getting something to eat; sticking something in her mouth might stop further ridiculousness from tumbling out.


Fuck, that’s good.” Alina mumbles through a mouthful of cakey, spiced sugar-encrusted deliciousness. They’re tucked away in a corner of the cheery, wood-paneled coffeeshop, safely out of the stream of coming and going patrons.

Aleks blinks at her owlishly through his still-half-fogged glasses. “Oh wow, you weren’t kidding.”

She doesn’t have to look down to know he’s talking about the crystalline crumbs spilling down the front of her sweater — and she squints at him as she washes it down with a pull of cider. “You’re a neat freak, aren’t you?” She shakes her head, putting on a front of deep disappointment. “I knew you were too good to be true.”

“No, I just know how to eat without wearing it,” he snorts.

“A skill I couldn’t even master with two working hands.” His deep, dark gaze flickers with something that’s close enough to pity for her to add, “And my trench coat raccoons said if you don’t laugh at that, you are secretly a bottom. Maybe even a brat.”

Alina watches as he takes a neat bite of his own donut, smirking at her as he chews. Wish he’d take a bite out of me.

She’s so distracted staring at the curve of his lips, the pop of tendons as he works his jaw, that her next bite ends up bonking the curve of her donut against her nose.

Aleks huffs with soft laughter as he swallows, his dark eyes crinkling again. He takes a drink of his cider, studying her in that careful way of his, the one that makes her stomach lurch. Then he sets the bottle down.

“I want to kiss you,” he says quietly. “Is that all right?”

Oh. Oh.

Alina’s heart squeezes too insistently for her to speak, but she nods. 

They’re sitting on adjoining sides of the square table and he’d already seemed close — but then he leans closer still. Surrounding her without touching her, his scent and presence enfolding Alina and making her eyelids grow heavy.

Her pulse sings with need, her lips tingling with anticipation … but there’s only a faint pressure as he prints a kiss on the tip of her nose.

She gasps quietly, and then he straightens, tongue flicking over his lower lip and converting the movement into a bite as his eyes smolder into hers.

“Hope none of your students were around to see that,” Alina murmurs, her mouth burning with his calculated denial. Fuck … he knows what he’s doing .

He laughs — and then there’s that vulnerability again, a goofiness that seems at odds with his smooth ripostes. “They would never let me hear the end of it. But I don’t care.”

“No?”

“Worth it,” Aleks says, shrugging faintly. Then, as if he wants to impress it on her, he repeats, “ You are worth it, Alina.”

There’s a clumsiness to the words, an earnestness, like he doesn’t say them often.

“Don’t say anything,” he adds quickly, his cheeks flushing. “I’m not trying to fish for anything back, I just … wanted you to know. That’s all.”

“Thank you.” Her voice sounds tiny, but she means it — and the way his answering smile suffuses her with heat makes her scoot her chair a few inches closer, coaxing his grin into something bashful and vulnerable and wondrous.

I like him.  

It doesn’t seem like much in the way of an epiphany, but it’s the first time she’s felt like this in years. Maybe ever. She hadn’t even felt this natural, this much herself around Nikolai.

And with that, Alina’s world spins on its axis, turning into something entirely new and unexpected. A world where Aleksander Morozova, professor, nerd, and procurer of epic donuts, has a grin that’s just for her.


On my way , the text from Genya reads, and even though it’s good to see the confirmation, it’s confirmation that this magical night is ending. Tomorrow Os Kervo will be drab again, Cinderella in her salt-streaked rags, and as for Alina… 

Stay here. Stay now.

She knows she’s walking slowly, dragging out the minutes — and Aleks’ lanky stride notwithstanding, he matches her pace as he accompanies her back to the municipal parking lot.

The question erodes her self-control until she finally asks: “So … what now?”

“Well.” Aleks considers her question, staring ahead to where the town’s lights dim, the road cutting away into the trees. “I can court you formally—”

“You did not just say that,” Alina hoots, her laughter echoing between the buildings. “Did you really just say court?

“Maybe not formally, then.” He sounds like he’s rolling his eyes. Probably blushing, too. “But … steps, is my point.”

“They’d better have a handrail, then, because I’m shit with stairs.”

His eyes twinkle with mirth. “Should I put my arm around you, then? Just in case you slip, of course.”

Alina peers up at him, clamping her lips together to hide a grin. “How very thoughtful of you. No ulterior motive whatsoever.”

“Not wanting to be closer to you.” Aleks’s arm wraps around her waist, his hand settling on her jacket — and her head buzzes tipsily at his closeness, his dimpled, scruffy grin as he gazes down at her. “Not at all.”

Her good arm finds its way around him, too, and their footsteps sync up immediately, as though they’ve already been walking in lockstep. He’s solid, radiating warmth and delight as she burrows into his side. Fuck, no one’s ever made me feel this tiny.

It’s a scary thought — but he isn’t trying to push her behind any buildings. Just walking with her in the half-light.

He blinks and twitches his head, visibly distracted, too as his lips skew into a lopsided smile. “So, ehm, where was I?”

“Steps,” Alina prompts.

“Right. So, if you’ve had a nice time tonight — I know I have—”

Her stomach swoops. “Me, too.”

“Well then.” His hand resettles at her waist, his thumb skimming over her jacket. “I suppose we could spend some time privately.”

“I knew your inner axe murderer would come out sooner or later.”

“For all I know you’re the axe murderer, luring me back to your lair to stick my head on a pike, you little monster,” he teases.

The idea of having Aleks back to the sad little bedroom makes her guts twist. “My place might not be the best to hang out. For one thing, it’s not actually my place, it’s Mal’s — and we’re so close, we’re all up in each other’s business.” She’s still sore about the spilled tea — not that it was Mal’s fault, exactly, but him butting into her sex life is unthinkably wretched. “And I would very much rather him not .”

Aleks’s brow creases. “Not know that you’re dating?”

“Not open the bedroom door and walk in without waiting for an all-clear. Which I’m sure I do to him, too, but still.” She tries to smile, but it comes out as a grimace. “The perils of communal living.”

“Oh no, I’m officially too old for that shit,” Aleks says quickly, the words quaking with a laugh. “My place, then.”

“You sound relieved.”

He shrugs, his arm nudging tighter against her back. “I like my place.”

“And I can meet Mrs. Bates!” Alina’s too excited to be cool; after the brush with the cat in Mal’s backyard, she’s aching for pet therapy. Wonder if she’ll let me snuggle her.

Aleks smirks, dryly amused. “Am I going to have to compete with my cat for your attention?”

One look into his ink-dark eyes and she knows the answer: “I sincerely doubt it.”

Then they’re there, the parking lot sprawled out before them, veiled white from the falling snow that blankets the sea of parked cars.

“We can watch a movie,” Aleks hums quietly, pulling her closer, before him, against him. Not too close, but enough that she has to tilt her head back to gaze up at him.

“—or pretend to watch it and do more interesting stuff,” Alina offers.

Aleks’ grin is pure evil, making her pussy cramp with a long-forgotten need. Her cotton panties are clinging to her sex, and she might’ve even dampened her leggings, too. “Even better.”

“You can show me your rope collection.”

His smile fades to something sterner. Warning . His fingers pressing in at her waist, insistent. “Show only. I wouldn’t use them on you. Not the first time.”

Alina’s heart skitters with excitement. “Oh?”

“First times are for exploring. The rope will be waiting for later, if it’s needed.”

If, ” she breathes.

 It’s such a promising word.

His expression is one of arch amusement, and he lifts his free hand to her cup her jaw. The touch of his skin is galvanic, making her spine bow and her other arm awkwardly slip around him, pushing her body into his.

“You like the idea of that?” he croons, his glasses flashing with the emerald and violet lights. His eyes burn behind the lenses, scorching her down to the soles of her feet. “Being tied up in my knots?”

Alina nods, lost in the way his thumb is scrawling gentle circles on her cheek. “I think so.”

He grins crookedly. “First things first, then.”

The hand at her cheek slides back, his fingertips settling on the nape of her neck, and Aleks draws her to him as he leans down to meet her.

His mouth angles over Alina’s, the hot press of his lips making her murmur as an ancient hunger reawakens, blazing to life in her core. This facet of her has been slumbering for so long, even before the cancer and everything that came after … but somehow she remembers how, nuzzling into him, holding him close as his tongue parts the seam of her lips and tangles with hers. His arm goes tighter around her, pinning her against the hard length of his body as he devours her, growling as she scrapes her teeth over his lower lip. His stubble scrapes her sensitive skin, but she can’t get enough of it. Of Aleks.

He smells so good, I want him…

The familiar purring of Genya’s car grows louder, turning into the parking lot, but Alina doesn’t want to pull away. Aleks is ravenous for her, feral beneath his calm exterior — she can feel it in his iron embrace, the way he’s claiming her mouth, her lips, her tongue. Desperate to conquer her as she fights to take him, too.

“Alina,” he breathes into her lips between kisses. “ Fuck…

This is why there’s no playing on the first date. Because right now she would give anything to be in a place where they could take this further.

The honk seems tentative, but it’s enough to make Alina and Aleks jump.

He smiles, squinting into the headlights as they break apart. “Your chariot, I presume.”

“You could call it that,” Alina mutters, blushing even harder as Genya rolls down the window and waves.

“Step away from the handsome man and get into the vehicle, bitch!”

Aleks chuckles, but he draws Alina in for one last, lingering kiss that makes her soul ache. Then his hand is gone, his other arm falling away as he steps back.

“I’ll text you?” she asks throatily, blinking as a giant snowflake hurls itself against her temple.

“Let me know you got home safe.” Aleks’s dark eyes rage at her, a contrast to his calm voice. “Please.”

Alina nods, and he shoves his hands back into his pockets as she steps away. “Night.”

“Goodnight, Alina.”

Her boots crunch on the slush, and she fumbles the door open. Then she’s sitting in the passenger seat, the door thumping shut, Aleks watching them from the carnival-colored night as they pull away.

“Well?” Genya demands, sparing her a glance at the tiny intersection that leads out of the lot. “How did it go? How was your arm?

My arm. It tingles faintly, the knob of broken and healed bone in her clavicle clicking now that she’s thinking about it — but while she was with Aleks she hardly even noticed it. Huh.

“It was good. Better than good,” she admits — and as Genya squeals with excitement, demanding, “Tell me absolutely everything! ” Alina catches one last, heady trace of Aleks’s scent on her skin.

Chapter Text

“What do you mean, the preauth hasn’t arrived?

Alina hears herself snarling into the phone, the panic armoring her voice indistinguishable from fury. It’s not the hospital scheduler’s fault, but the fact that this is a problem now, this morning, when it was supposedly all set—

“I’m sorry, Ms. Starkov,” the woman sounds even further away from the whooshing of blood in Alina’s ears. “Really, we will keep an eye out for it. Just come in and if we haven’t gotten it by the time your first appointment starts, we’ll take it from there.”

Alina forces herself to take a steadying breath, inhaling through her nose. “Look, it’s not just like I can jump in a car, get there, and then find out it’s not happening. I can’t even drive myself, my friend is taking off work to bring me…” She dashes her hand over her forehead, aggravated as it comes away dripping wet. Of course this would happen right now. Of COURSE. “I just need to make sure that if I leave my house, this is going to happen. That I’ll be able to get the tests done.”

“I understand. And I can’t make any promises, but it’s here in the notes that Dr. Grigori does want your imaging done as soon as possible to stay on-cycle.”

“I know, I know,” Alina grumbles, trying to think through her mind’s crazed racing. “I just—”

“I’ll try your insurer again in the meantime. I can see here that you haven’t changed since your last visit, it’s probably just a clerical holdup.”

I don’t have a choice. It’s not entirely true, Alina knows it even as the thought darts through her mind, but after all her careful arranging it feels like this day is unraveling even before it’s begun.

“Okay,” she sighs, defeated. If this is going to be a massive clusterfuck, at least she knows about it now, while there’s still time to do something about it. Expectations, consider yourselves adjusted.

After more reassurances from the imaging scheduler that the foul-up with her insurance preauthorization will probably be resolved by the time of her first appointment, Alina clicks off and tosses the phone beside her on the bed, flopping back with a growl. Her hair sticks to her forehead; not being able to tie it back with an elastic is still frustrating, and shoving it back behind a headband never satisfies the urge.

I should’ve gotten up earlier. It’s too late now; her clothes are soaked with sweat, and she awkwardly wriggles out of them, flinging them aside on the floor. The hair dryer provides enough heat to warm her up, and soon she’s dry again, her skin sticky but at least no longer drenched.

She treats her left arm to extra hot air, bathing it under the nozzle for another minute before dragging on a long-sleeved shirt. The crackling cold will subside when her morning meds kick in, and she’ll only get the Dreaded Diaphoresis after that if she’s working out or seriously stressed . But if that phone call was anything to go by, she might end up swimming in the hospital lobby.

She grabs her phone again and glances at the clock. Ten o’clock. Mal should be here by now.

By ten past, she’s worried enough to text him — Where are you?? — and the response that dings through a minute later is far from reassuring.

Mal : I’ll be there by 10:30, relax

Alina : *Relax?* Mal, if I’m late I lose my appt

Mal : It only takes 15 mins to get there

Alina : Yeah, but that road is so narrow & there are always crashes

Alina : Pls just get here as soon as you can

Mal : I’ll do what I can

“Fuck, fuck, fuck, ” Alina chants. The outfitters’ is at least ten minutes away from the apartment, even if he jumps in his truck right now. This is cutting it way too close.

There’s nothing else to do but smoke up. She doesn’t even bother hiding the dugout up her sleeve. Even in full daylight it’ll just look like she’s smoking a cigarette anyway.

The screaming cacophony in her mind subsides as she inhales, the warm blanket drawing close around her. A veil obscuring all the other things that could or might go wrong.

One thing at a time.

First, hiding the bat, dugout, and her stash in the top of her bedroom’s shabby closet, nudging them up out of sight and sliding the door shut. Next, washing and sanitizing her hands. A piece of gum for her breath, a few more swipes of deodorant under her arms, and then there’s nothing else to do but wait.

She perches on the edge of the living room couch, watching out the front window. Minutes drag by, and her attention flits back to her phone, doomscrolling as she waits. There aren’t any new alerts, but she taps into her messages anyway, bringing up the brief exchange from last night.

Koroleva : Home safe. Thanks for an amazing night 🥰

Darkheart : Same and you too. I’ll talk to you tomorrow, if that’s okay?

Koroleva : Absolutely 

Since then, nothing. Which makes sense, because it’s a Monday morning, after all. No one’s free on Monday mornings but the young, the old, and the infirm — or at least it feels that way. Definitely not college professors.

Alina debates messaging him again, tapping her forefinger against her phone case as she stares out at the barren road. A simple good morning probably can’t go amiss, but last night was such a whirlwind that her head’s still spinning.

His hand heating the nape of my neck, his mouth claiming mine as he pulls me against his chest

Of course that’s when Mal arrives, the familiar pickup lurching into sight, reminding her of how much there is to do — and how little mental energy she has to spare on luxuries like a dark-eyed man whose kiss set her alight.


Alina scowls in confusion as Mal pulls into the hospital’s parking lot and cuts the engine. She jerks her good thumb back over her shoulder. “The drop-off’s back there.”

“Right, but don’t you need me to come inside?”

She shakes her head, slowly, baffled as his expression wrinkles in confusion, too. “I just needed the ride.”

The furrow between his brows deepens to a canyon. “You don’t need, I dunno … moral support or anything?”

He’s so earnest that she unbuckles and awkwardly twists in her seat, reaching over to pat his hand. “This is all old news by now. I’m used to it.”

“You shouldn’t have to be used to going in there alone,” Mal says grudgingly.

Alina shrugs, empty. “That’s just how it is.”

“Fucking Nikolai,” he growls, and she can feel the anger vibrating through him, the veins in his neck pumping under his skin as his fingers close on hers. “I never should’ve introduced you.”

“To be fair, you didn’t know he was a scumfucker,” she reassures him, trying to ignore the flash of resentment that he’s making this about him . “And doing what he did … well, it’s really common in that situation.”

She doesn’t feel anything as she says the words. Just empty, disconnected from the pain. Logical. Thank fuck for quick divorces with no assets.

Mal glowers at her. “Are you actually defending him?”

“Of course not!” Alina snaps — and even though his hand is tight on hers, she slips through his fingers, returning his glare full-force. “He’s a prick, he’s just not the first prick to do that.”

“He’s such a pussy.”

Alina regards him, playfully somber. “That is a grievous insult to pussies everywhere. Mine included.” Mal’s face goes ruddy with something more than anger, and she adds a quick, “Sorry.”

“No, you’re right.” He glances at the hospital entrance, then back at her. “D’you want me to wait?”

“Oh god no,” she laughs. “I’ll just text you when I need a ride back.”

“Might as well go back to work at this rate.” Mal grumbles.

“I really can rideshare back if that’s easier.”

His face darkens. “Don’t be stupid, you know I’ll come get you. Besides, you can’t afford it.”

“Thanks,” Alina says, mildly stung. Not that he’s not wrong, of course, but the reminder that she’s going to have to fight her other insurance company for her monthly disbursement makes her queasy. Then she remembers the preauthorization snag, and her stomach plummets. Thank fuck I smoked up this morning . “Actually, can you wait a few minutes? There’s a chance they didn’t get the go-ahead from my insurance company.”

“Shit,” Mal marvels, shaking his head in disbelief. “Okay, yeah. But you’re sure —”

“I’ll text you,” she says quickly as his hand moves to the door handle, and his hazel eyes flicker with something that might be disappointment. “I don’t think I’m even allowed a visitor, not for this outpatient stuff.”

“Huh. Alright.”

“Thanks,” Alina tells him, smiling tightly. Then she hops out, slinging her satchel over her shoulder before slamming the door shut.

It doesn’t feel good lying to Mal. Of course she’s allowed a companion; time was, she and Nikolai used to argue about that. Bitterly. 

No one else showed up to chemo and radiation utterly alone.

But the truth is that after so long, it’ll be easier without anyone else. If Mal came with her, she’d only end up worrying about him, trying to allay his fears like that first and only time with Tatiana. That’s crystal clear. It’s sheer luck that the traffic was so favorable; if she’d been arguing with Mal while already late, she’d be sweating through her clothes again.

The hospital lobby is quiet as Alina hurries inside, sanitizing her hands and donning a mask at the front desk. Most of the building is a giant blur to her, a grey haze in the heads-up display of her mind, but the walk to the imaging suite is familiar — and mercifully short.

There are only four people in the waiting room as she approaches the clerk: a young man on crutches, accompanied by a worried-looking young woman who resembles him enough to be his sister, and an elderly pair who mutter quietly in the corner.

The clerk greets her with a smile. “Last name and date of birth?” She straightens as soon as the word Starkov passes Alina’s lips. “Oh yes, we spoke on the phone!”

Alina feels herself cringing. “About my insurance sign-off?” 

The woman’s grin widens as she snatches up a piece of paper from the desk beside her, holding it aloft in triumph.

“Oh thank fuck,” Alina sighs. With that, everything’s abruptly back on track. Routine. Predictable. Safe.

She collects the intake forms and perches herself in an empty chair, balancing her phone on the clipboard.

Alina : I’m set, you can take off! Thanks again 🥰

Mal : k

She rolls her eyes. Dudes: from hyperconcerned to monosyllabic in a hot minute. If she had to guess, he’s probably on the way home, which is a relief. At least when he picks her up he won’t be grumpy.

Her gut clenches as she skims through the paperwork, one sheet for each of the procedures.

No shrapnel, bb pellets, or injuries to her eyes. No new tattoos or piercings.

History of cancer? That one always makes her whiff with quiet laughter. The forms are identical for everyone, and the Os Kervo hospital is in the same network as the one in Boston. It’s not like they don’t already have this information on file, so to see it asked so innocently gives her a gallows giggle.

Synovial sarcoma, left brachial plexus, Alina writes in careful hand. Forty-two staples and six inches of staples kept her shut for the first few weeks, and though those are long gone, she still doesn’t know how many pins and surgical clips are still inside her. ? pins and clips, on file, she adds.

Scribbling in the politely provided human silhouette ( Please shade in the affected area/s ) is a tiny bit therapeutic. Maybe she should trust that they already know that her arm is a mess from fingertip to collarbone, but she does it anyway. Front and back. Crosshatching, shading around the borders, until the human chalk outlines look like a knockoff Bucky Barnes.

A med tech emerges from the back corridor, Alina’s heart skittering with surprise as the door swings open. The woman consults her tablet. “Tolya?” 

The young man hops awkwardly to his feet, and his sister helps him tuck the crutches under his arms before they follow the tech into the back corridors.

Alina slumps back against her seat, relieved until she glances down to see her phone blinking with a new alert. I didn’t even feel it vibrate.

Darkheart : Good morning, Alina.

A golden dart of excitement shoots through her.

Koroleva : Good morning, Professor

It’s cheeky, but it might be the only thing she gets to say to him before going in. But then the phone pings again.

Darkheart : I see what you did there 👀 How’s your morning going?

Interesting . No insinuations about how she might’ve slept, or even much of a reaction to her sassy response. Just an honest question.

But if she’s fully honest in return, she’s going to be the bummer girl. The sad sack. What a turn-on. And she wants more of last night, not more of this .

Koroleva : The usual, converting oxygen into carbon dioxide. You?

Darkheart : The usual. Loads of tests, and younglings who’ve never heard of Star Wars, let alone Dorian Gray 🙄

Alina snickers mirthlessly. Tests … the irony.

Koroleva : Wtf? Who the hell hasn’t heard of Star Wars??

Darkheart : THAT’S WHAT I SAID

Koroleva : It’s green babies & macarons everywhere, I call bs

“Alina?”

She’s so startled that it all goes everywhere in a jumble — clipboard. pen, papers, and the rectangular brick of her phone, which has the audacity to cartwheel away, shatterproof case bouncing merrily on the tile floor.

“Oops!” The technologist helps her scoop it all up, eyes crinkling above her sunshine-yellow mask. “My name’s Magda, I’ll be helping you out today.”

“Hi Magda,” Alina responds automatically as the woman ushers her past the swinging doors and into the imaging wing. The corridors are as familiar as the walk from the front door to the waiting room; she follows mindlessly, fully on autopilot.

It’s going to be okay. They’re not going to find anything. Calcifer’s gone.

“Can I get your last name and date of birth one more time?”

Alina obliges, and a minute later they’re in the receiving room, curtains on overhead tracks partitioning several chairs. Most of them look empty, and Magda ushers her to one that’s near the door. “So what’s bringing you in today?”

“Just routine monitoring. Every three months I get a date with an MRI machine.”

Magda chuckles, eyes darting down to her papers. “And a CT by the look of it.”

“I get all the fun stuff today,” Alina jokes. The other woman laughs again, pulling a freestanding table before her as Alina draws her satchel into her lap and settles in.

Frankly, it’s cheating. The same script every time; only the faces of the techs, the kindly eyes that change.

“With contrast,” Magda notes, flicking through her own papers and collecting Alina’s clipboard and pen. “Okay, so let’s take a look at those vei—”

“I actually have a port,” Alina says quickly. She yanks off her sweater, pointing to the distended coin of flesh above her right breast. “Three-quarter inch.”

“Oh, awesome! Let me get a kit.”

Magda disappears, and Alina’s skin pebbles, her tank shirt a poor defense against the chill air. Does everyone know their needle size, or just me? It’s like being Cinderella or Goldilocks, if they were given the Darkest Timeline treatment.

She pulls out her phone, delighted to find another message waiting.

Darkheart : There *was* mention of watching something together, if you’re amenable to another date.

“Shit,” she breathes, cold air instantly forgotten in her delight.

Courting. Amenable. If nothing else, Aleks certainly has a stylish vocabulary.

Koroleva : I recall mention of *ignoring* something together… 

Darkheart : Is someone feeling bratty this morning?

Magda catches her grinning as she strolls back into sight, the customary pouch in her hands. “Good news?”

You could say that. The mere idea of Aleks calling her bratty is enough to make her head buzz with excitement. “I think I’m being asked out?”

“First date?” 

“Second, actually,” Alina admits, scribbling a response as the other woman unfolds the pouch, laying it flat on the narrow table.

Koroleva : And what would a gentleman such as you *do* to a brat, Aleks? 👀

That should get his attention.

Magda gives an approving sort of nod as she snaps on a pair of violet gloves. “Ooh, very cool. What are you guys gonna do?”

“Watch a movie or something, I guess? If it works out,” Alina adds hastily.

“Well, I’ll be crossing my fingers for you,” Magda says. Her eyes crinkle with a smile again. Then, in the same friendly tone she continues, “So what was it again? Suh—”

Alina already knows what the tech is looking for as she glances back at the paperwork. “Synovial sarcoma.”

Magda’s brow wrinkles with a frown as she finishes readying the port access kit. “Huh, never heard of that one.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty rare.” She huffs out a soft laugh. “I basically won the worst lottery ever.”

“Oh no,” Magda cries softly, drawing out the last syllable — and it’s more of the same reassuring script. “And it was in your—?”

Alina gestures to her scar with a flourish. “Left brachial plexus.”

“Oof.” The other woman holds up a yellow medical-grade mask like her own, courtesy of the kit. “Wanna keep this?”

Waste not. “Sure.” Alina tucks it away in her bag as Magda swings the table between them aside. The tech lifts the swabstick, clicking it and running the spongy end over Alina’s skin, a raw icicle scrubbing in tight circles. She holds herself still, muscles taut so that she won’t flinch.

Magda disposes of the swabstick and reaches forward, her gesture familiar. A sort of half-clawed approach, asking permission to touch without invading her space. “D’you mind if I…?”

Alina nods, pitching warmth into her voice as she says, “Sure thing.”

“Thanks.” Magda’s gloved fingers prod the circular lump of the port, and she hums appreciatively. “Ooh, that’s nice and solid.”

“Yeah, they did a really good job.” Mostly Alina knows that because it’s what all the nurses say — and the fact that she’s never had trouble with it. On days like today she’s especially grateful for the device. The prick that’s coming will be far less spicy than an intravenous line poked into the inside of her elbow. “Can you give me a one-two-three?

“Absolutely.” The tech picks up the interconnected jumble, holding it by the squarish needle housing. A handspan of plastic tubing dangles below, and Magda braces the embossed coin with her fingertips. “Ready? Breathe in…”

Alina inhales, and with Magda’s chanted, “Three, two, one, aaand —” she slowly blows it out, a steady rivulet of air coursing out between her pursed lips.

Barely a flash of pain and it’s in. The rest of Alina’s breath rushes out in an easy sigh, and Magda nods as crimson backwashes into the clear line. “Good blood return.”

“Do I get a gold star? —no, wait, a red one?” Alina quips.

The other woman chuckles. “I’ll see what I can do.”

If there’s one thing Alina hasn’t gotten used to, it’s the sound of the ruby-streaked liquid in the plunger spurting into her vein, the high-pitched fizzing somehow finding its way to her ears without ever meeting air.

Magda swiftly takes care of the rest, clipping the line onto itself and covering the area around the port with a transparent dressing. After a few busy seconds she stands back, and her eyes curve with a grin above her pleated yellow mask. “All set! Ready to change up?”

“Lead on, I could use a fashion show.” Alina grabs her bag and swings the strap over her bad shoulder, wincing as it nudges against the broken spot in her collarbone.

“I dunno about fashion show, but you’ll absolutely be the belle of the toga party.”

The quiet room Magda brings her to is enough of a double for the one in Boston that Alina’s steps and heartbeat hitch every time. Soft lights are recessed in the ceiling, illuminating a line of empty changing rooms that face neat metal lockers. It might be mistaken for a spa if not for the giant blue hamper that slouches beside the near end of the lockers, a cupboard of patterned hospital gowns and trousers on the other.

“Want an extra gown to use as a robe?” Magda asks as she grabs a couple of folded garments.

Alina groans happily. “You’re a saint.”

“Nah, just doing my job.”

“Okay, fine — but you at least deserve a raise.” That’s always true.

“I wouldn’t say no to that.” Magda hands Alina the stack of clothes, eyeing her carefully. “You know the drill?”

“Everything off but my underwear, then on with the snuggies.”

“You have done this before,” the other woman laughs. “Piercings and jewelry off, too, everything in the locker. Come on out when you’re ready, and don’t forget your locker key.”

Alina doesn’t think to check her phone again until she’s piling her belongings into the locker and it tumbles out, alert light blinking.

Darkheart : Provided a framework of informed consent? I’d put you over my knee and redden your ass until you apologized.

Alina’s skin tingles with awareness, heat rushing to her ass, her pussy, her clit. Usually this would be the point where she’d lock her phone away with the rest, but she can’t. Not with that message just sitting there, daring her to reply.

She pins her phone against her body with her left forearm, locking everything away and slipping the spiral wrist coil over her bad wrist. Flinching as the key’s cool metal brushes against her skin, a knife’s caress. Magda’s waiting for her in the hall, and she escorts Alina through a few more intersections to where the corridor terminates in an MRI suite.

The warning stickers scream at Alina, the metallic chug-chug-chug of the huge machine’s heartbeat emanating from beyond the heavy door.

Magda nods to the set of waiting chairs beside the unoccupied restroom. “Hang out here for a couple minutes, we just need to finish up.”

Perfect. Alina sinks into onie of the chairs, clamping her trousered knees together as she figures out how to respond to Aleks’ message.

Koroleva : Sounds promising ;)

Darkheart : Thought I might’ve scared you off for a moment there.

Koroleva : Nah, just dealing with a thing

Darkheart : Not a bad thing, I hope?

Koroleva : Adulting 🙄

Darkheart : Oh dear, my condolences.

Koroleva : It’s ok, just … hence the brattiness

Darkheart : I see 😈

The door to the MRI room opens, and a chubby older man emerges, hurrying to the restroom. Alina bites her lip to stifle a giggle at the audible sigh of relief that accompanies the sudden outflow. Hard relate, buddy.

Koroleva : Nice to see you’ve been thinking about what to do with me :p

Darkheart : You’re incredibly distracting, Alina.

The toilet flushes, and after the telltale rush of a faucet the older man emerges, walking at a sedate pace now that he hasn’t been holding it for an hour. Magda directs him to the exit, then catches Alina’s eye. “We’re almost done changing things over, it’ll be just a few more minutes.”

“Don’t rush on my account,” Alina offers cheerily.

Magda’s mask crinkles with another smile. “You are just one cool customer, Alina.”

“Hey, you guys do the hard work, I’m just here to go on all the fun rides.”

“Be right back,” the other woman tells her, the chunnering of the huge machine crescendoing briefly as she vanishes behind the door.

Alina tries to think up a decent response to Aleks as she fiddles with the painful knot at the base of her neck. The root of the low-grade headache she’s had since the day the port was placed. All her mental spoons are being used interacting with Magda and the hospital staff, leaving precious little free for flirtation.

Koroleva : So about hanging out together… Are you serious?

Darkheart : Absolutely. When are you free?

Koroleva : My schedule is basically open anytime

Darkheart : How’s Wednesday evening, say around 6:30?

Alina’s heart drums harder as she stares at the words. Not that they hadn’t discussed as much last night, but to have a concrete date and time makes it all real .

Koroleva : Yeah, that’d be great :)

Darkheart : Perfect. You’re sure you feel comfortable coming to my place? Not that I bite or anything.

Darkheart : ...well, only consensually ;)

She giggles — and then starts as the door to the MRI room swings open again. Magda stands just inside, holding it wide with one arm. “Come on in!”

Koroleva : Yes, I’m sure

Her stomach soars, everything within her floating, weightless. A second date. Holy shit, he was actually serious.

She manages to fire off a final gtg, more adulting, later <3 as she’s walking into the antechamber that waits beyond the door, a slender bank of computers inside a windowed compartment. Two more med workers wave friendly greetings, and Alina stops, gesturing to the empty window ledge. “Is it okay to leave my phone here?”

Magda shoots her a sharp look. “Y’know, you’re really not supposed to bring that in here.”

“I know, but I highly doubt any of you are going to abscond with my one-step-up-from-a-burner.”

The other woman rolls her eyes. “I see nothing.”

“Me neither,” Alina says as she tucks the phone into the corner of the window sill, wrist coil and key atop it.  Then there’s only the room sprawling before her, more spacious than Mal’s entire apartment. Its white walls, floor, ceiling are all splashed with pink and blue lights, the colors somehow merry and soothing all at once.

The machine at the center of the chamber looks like a revolver cylinder set on its side, huge and fat and round, with a donut hole of empty space in the middle. It’s only chug-chug-chug ging right now, the sound harsh and hissing, more like a steam locomotive than a purring cat.

As per usual, Alina tries not to look at it too much. That’s the trick — or one of a couple things she picked on on the road to hell and back. Don’t stare into the maw. That’s how it gets inside you, and breaks your mind.

Instead she looks at the long, narrow table that’s before the giant knocked-over cylinder, lolling out of its mouth like a tongue that someone’s shrouded with a white sheet. There’s a dent in the part closest to the machine, a squarish pillow bracketed by pieces of plastic that — if tradition holds — will spend the next thirty-five to forty-five minutes digging into the tops of her shoulders.

“Go ahead and lie down,” Magda tells her as one of the techs from the shielded room joins them.

“Heck yeah capcom, shoot me into space,” Alina quips. The gurney is low enough to sit comfortably, and she swings her socked feet up before lying back, wriggling up the covered platform until the braces are flush with her shoulders.

She stares up at the ceiling tiles, and the two women move around her, raising the platform and getting things situated. Someone’s stuck iridescent butterfly decals directly over the gurney, and they flash under the lapping blue and pink lights. Alina lifts her legs, and the techs tuck a foam wedge under her knees, alleviating the burgeoning ache at the small of her back. 

“Anything we should know about?” Magda asks.

“My arm drops if it’s not tucked in. I’m a terrible meat puppet.”

The technologist’s movements pause as she smiles down at Alina. “Don’t you worry, we’ll take care of you, Pinocchio.”

More like Potter’s Puppet Pals. She closes her eyes, letting them work, feeling rather than seeing. Usually this is about the time when her brain starts to eat itself with anxiety — not even with where she’ll be a few minutes from now, but with the thing that still might be hiding inside her body.

Usually she can tune it out, and has done from the very beginning — but inside the MRI machine the scanxiety is inescapable. It’s just her and the magnets, her empty mind spinning with dread as signals bounce through her body.

“Could you put a towel over my eyes?” she asks Magda. The soft weight is reassuring, like she’s wearing a sleep mask.

“Of course. Music choice?”

“Um, BTS?”

“I’ll see what I can do.” The machine’s chugging dampens as Magda tucks the special earbuds into place, the sound doubly muted with the addition of the earmuffs. Alina murmurs with relief as the folded towel presses against her closed eyes, and someone tucks the emergency squeeze ball into her good hand.

When Magda speaks again, her voice sounds so distant that Alina isn’t even sure it’s her. “Feeling okay?”

“Yup!” she calls back into the vast rumbling nothingness.

“Here we go.”

The platform rattles beneath her, the vibrations shivering through her bones. Even with two of her senses impaired she can feel the MRI machine welcoming her into its body, a hungry sarlaac — but she shoves the thought away.

“Squeeze the ball if you need to stop for any reason,” someone — Maghda? — calls from the infinite oblivion that surrounds her.

“Okay!”

It’s not as bad as radiation, but still she forces herself to inhale in slow shallow draws. I’m lying in an elven rowboat, floating downriver to Amon Hen…  

Alina’s begun to drift as Magda’s voice clicks into the earbuds, tinny but fully audible. “Still feeling okay in there?”

“Yep,” Alina responds, the brightness back in her voice. There’s space above her, a vault that stretches away to the distant stars. A slender, skeletal hemisphere arches over her chest, like something out of late 90’s Star Trek — but other than that there’s nothing. “I’m okay to go!”

This is okay. I’m okay.

“All right,” Magda says, that playful note still in her voice, “give us just a minute or two here and we’ll get going. Try not to move.”

Alina waits, and soon the machine’s percussive song begins, chattering arrhythmically. It’s like being inside a dial-up modem, but she pushes awareness of it away.

Aleks . His eyes shout at her in the darkness, and suddenly she’s not alone.

A date. A real date, and not just a first one. Second dates come with expectations — or if not expectations, possibilities.

And Aleks … he’s been so deliberate with her, doing everything right. Not overstepping or throwing up any red flags. The fact that he’s half again her age isn’t exactly a plus or a minus, it’s simply a fact. Hardly even taboo.

A thrill runs through her trapped body, her sex pulsing faintly at the memory of his mouth claiming hers as he pulls her close. Even Nik never touched her like that, with an odd combination of reverence and hunger. One that had made her crave more.

Wednesday . It’s just two days away. Plenty of time to daydream about what his place might be like, and wonder what Aleks might be hoping for. Surely he’ll be anticipating something . Sex, at the very least … and the violent, electric surge of need that seizes her is answer enough of her own hopes in that regard.

“The next sequence will take five minutes,” a woman’s prerecorded voice informs her, and Alina drifts off, imagining all the things that could or might lie ahead.

Chapter Text

“Nnh,” Alina grunts as she heaves herself onto the couch.

Mal eyes her with concern. “You doing alright, or should I call the undertakers?”

“Call Nina if I kick,” she groans, wrapping the fleece blanket tighter around her body and yanking the recliner handle so the footrest swings up in front of her. “She’ll know what to do with me.”

“She the one in mortuary school?”

Alina grabs her water bottle from the coffee table and takes a swig. “Yep, proud member of the Grimsley Academy Last Responders.”

Mal snorts with laughter.

“If you think that’s funny, you should hear some of their other slogans. Grimsley School of Witchcraft and Gizzardry was one of my other favorites.”

“Christ.” He shakes his head, smirk fading. “Seriously, though, how are you feeling?”

Seriously seriously?” She considers the question, replacing her water bottle on the table and tucking the blanket around her legs. “The contrast dye makes me feel pretty narky, but it’s nothing some extra water and bitching won’t fix.”

Mal bares his teeth in a rictus of horror. “And you can actually feel it going inside you?”

“They keep saying it feels like pissing your pants, but I lack the real-world experience for comparison.”

“I thought you did when you were … y’know…” Sick with cancer. That’s what he won’t say. His eyes go wide with that sad-cow sorrow, the kind that makes her instinctive contrariness kick in.

“Nope. Threw up into my underwear while I was peeing,” Alina corrects, “so while I did technically wet my pants, it wasn’t in the conventional sense.”

Mal shakes his head gravely. “That really isn’t funny.”

I think it is,” she says, obstinately cheerful. “Maybe your funnybone’s broken.”

His hazel eyes drop to the neckline of her long-sleeved tee, long since stretched out from hours spent hooked up to hospital gear. Alina hasn’t yet bothered to take off the bandage from the port access, but she does now, grimly appeased by Mal’s wince as she peels the tape and cotton wad away from her skin. There’s a tiny maroon smear on the cotton, and another on the raised coin of her port — but that’s it. All other evidence of today is purely internal.

“Huh.” Mal shivers in exaggerated disgust. Then he nods at the television, the home screen humming quietly as it awaits their choice. “Pick your poison.”

She doesn’t even hesitate. “ Midsommar. Definitely.”

“You sure you don’t want something less … intense?”

“No, it’s cathartic,” Alina groans, settling herself deeper into the couch. “Bring on the screaming and smashing, it gives me life.”

Mal gives a quiet hmmph but only scrolls through the channel icons, not settling on any of them.

Ensconced in her blanket like a fleece sandworm, Alina lifts an eyebrow. “Are you too scared to watch it?”

“No,” he snaps immediately — and Alina’s blood pressure spikes with anxiety as his cheeks flush scarlet. “Not scared … I just don’t like it, alright?”

“That’s fine. Really.” She stays utterly frozen, heart hammering. Nikolai used to bark like that sometimes, his mood shifting with terrifying suddenness. “I didn’t mean anything by it.”

“Well, good then.”

He doesn’t say anything else, just fiddles with the console controller, staring straight ahead.

“Look,” Alina tries again — stiffly now, wary of provoking another outburst. “Why don’t you pick something?”

“No, you had a rough day. You should pick.”

For fuck’s sake, Mal… He’s so grudging that an unvoiced scream bubbles up in her chest. “How about Naked Survival?

“Yeah, alright.”

Thank hell. She wants to sigh in relief, but then he might actually realize that she’s throwing him a bone. Not that she doesn’t like survivalist shows, too, but hunting is his bonding thing with Dubrov and Mikhael. He loves narrating the episode, explaining all the things he would do in the contestants’ position, and that’ll be friendly enough noise tonight.

A few minutes into the episode a rattling cacophony makes them both jump  — but it’s just Alina’s phone vibrating against her water bottle.

Fuck ,” Mal laughs, clapping a hand to his heart as she scrabbles to quiet the thing. It’s Genya, finally catching up with the missives Alina hurled at her earlier.

Alina : It’s not weird for people to have sex on the second date, right? 

Alina : Like, etiquette-wise

Alina: (is sex etiquette a thing or am I just high?)

Genya : Lol I mean, it’s not weird if aforementioned people *want* to have sex

Genya : OMG ARE YOU GOING TO FUCK ALEKS??

Alina resettles herself in the crook of the couch, taking the opportunity to steal a glance at Mal. He’s watching her, almost expectant. “Is that your results?”

“No, won’t have those back for another day or two at least. Just Genya.”

“Oh?” His brow creases faintly. “What’s she want?”

“Checking in after today.” Her phone vibrates again, and she instinctively checks it, keeping the screen cupped toward her.

Genya : Srsly wench, don’t leave me hanging 👀

“That’s nice of her.” Mal slouches lower, too, settling himself against the backrest a couple of times, like he’s trying to punch it into conforming to his shape. Then he flashes her a grin. “If it was some dude harassing you, I was gonna ask whose ass I had to kick.”

Let it go. It’s that weird posturing that guys sometimes do; Nikolai did the same every so often, vaguely threatening violence as though it would comfort her. Even if it is just a joke, it makes Alina bristle with warning as she swipes out a response.

Alina : Yeah. I think so

But in the end she can’t let it pass, and finds herself announcing, “It’s all right, I can handle myself.”

He chuckles, dismissive. “Come on, Alina. Be serious.”

“I am serious.” She squints at Mal in disbelief. His dubious expression hurts more than a slap. “What?”

“I mean, maybe before, but with your arm like it is… Plus you’re small anyway,” he hurries to add, as though that’s somehow that’s clarifying matters. “You can’t exactly defend yourself.”

“Mal, I don’t go round getting into fisticuffs or something.”

“That’s not what I meant, and you know it,” he mutters sullenly, hazel eyes dark with … resentment? It’s impossible to tell, and the uncertainty makes her uneasy.

“No, I don’t . What the fuck are you on about?”

“Look, I—” He huffs, fidgeting. “I thought maybe you were dating again or something.”

“So what if I was?

“So … that’d be asking for trouble.”

Alina shakes her head. He just doesn’t get it. “Mal, there are plenty of reasons to be afraid of your kind that don’t involve being physically overpowered.”

My kind?” he demands, bristling.

“Y’know. Men .” Nikolai hadn’t lifted a hand to her once, yet he’d destroyed her all the same. She sets her jaw. “Anyway, I’m not the same person I was growing up in Keramzin. Hell, I’m not the same person I was in Os Alta .”

“I know. And I…” He hesitates, fumbling for words — and for a few brief moments he’s the same Mal that he was growing up, his expression wide and guileless. The way he was before he fell in with Mikhael and Dubrov and the rest. Her friend . “I want you to know that I’ll always be here for you.”

She wants to squeeze his hand, but things still feel weird between them. Unsettled as a wrinkled carpet. “I know.”

“Just promise me you won’t rush back out into the world. In your own time, yeah?”

Alina’s lips pop open, and for a moment she’s on the brink of telling him — but then something stops her. It’s okay to keep things to myself. To have things that are mine.

“Yeah,” she echoes, but the word tastes like a lie, knowing how very ready she is.


Tuesday passes in a slow purgatory. Alina finds herself a prisoner of time; it doesn’t matter where she goes or what she does, she’s simply pacing, waiting to be released.

She reads. Naps. Aleks is busy with classes and meetings, but his Good morning, Alina puts a grin on her face that she can’t shake for hours.

Looking forward to seeing you again. Nothing crude or presumptuous — probably because being turned on isn’t a great look in any workplace, let alone an academic one — but the simple phrases make hope glow bright in her chest.

She screenshots it to Genya, of course, and poring over the exchange makes her feel awake again, her mind buzzing with possibilities.

Alina : See, I think he’s just being polite — he’s not even hitting on me, just asking about my day & shit

Genya : It’s weird when they’re respectful, isn’t it?

Genya : But for real he wants to screw you into his mattress

Alina : WAT

Genya : You’re hanging out at his place, right?

Alina : ...yesh…

Genya : As per ever, trust your gut — but sounds like he wants you all to himself

Genya : And vice versa

Alina : You’re making a lot of assumptions, Fancy Drew

Genya : Pfft you liiiiiiiiiike him, & nothing wrong with that 😘

Genya : Babe the only way to get back on the horse is to get back on the horse

Genya : ...if you know what I mean 

Genya : 😼 👅 🍆🍆 💥

Alina : YES I KNOW HWHAT YOU MEAN MAAM 😂😂

Alina : Zomg you are the worst

Genya : You misspelled *best* 😉


Almost before Alina is ready it’s Wednesday, and the sun is hanging low on the western horizon.

Dressing takes her far longer than it should, by rights, even given her present limitations. A dry run at four turns into the real deal, fastening the one bra that doesn’t hurt, then wriggling into the lace band, popping her breasts up into the cups one at a time. Her oversized Invader Zim tee is made of that strangely soft cotton fabric, the kind that doesn’t irritate her scar. It’s the only thing that she’s sure won’t make her hyperconscious of her body.

Black panties and leggings complete her ensemble, and when she swallows her night meds and swipes on a couple flicks of eyeliner, she doesn’t entirely hate the person staring out of the mirror.

She’s crouched in the backyard, smoking up and surveying the brambles for Megachonk, when her phone buzzes in her pocket.

Darkheart : I’m at 1113 Starless Way, btw, but if you’d prefer I can give you a lift.

Koroleva : Thank, yeah, that’d be great — my driving skills have been subpar lately

Koroleva: NOOO idea why 😅

Darkheart : Have you tried unplugging your arm and plugging it back in?

The hit burns Alina’s nose as she snorts with laughter, giggling louder as another text pops through.

Darkheart : Did you check for firmware updates?

Koroleva : Clearly I’m just not trying hard enough, womp womp

Darkheart : Aw no 😥

Maybe he doesn’t get that I’m kidding. Alina blows out a breath, trying to steady herself. 

Fun. Flirty. Light. She can be those things again.

Koroleva : It’s all part of my elaborate scheme

Darkheart : A scheme, you say 🧐

Koroleva : Top secret, sorry 🤷♀️

Darkheart : Fine, keep your secrets, I’ll just have to torture them out of you tonight ;)

Alina stares at the word torture as she takes another hit — and when she shivers it isn’t from the cold.

Darkheart : Now, where am I meeting you?

Koroleva : Do you know the old courthouse?

Darkheart : Sure do. Pick you up at 6:30?

Koroleva : Sounds good :) 

Darkheart : See you then.


The old Os Kervo courthouse is the nearest thing to a landmark in the neighborhood, one of the last vestiges of the town’s historical district apart from the too-large houses that’ve been partitioned into multi-unit housing. It hunches beside the main street, its pale, broad stone steps flooded by streetlights.

In full view of the convenience store across the street — and its CCTV cameras, of course.

Alina’s breath clouds the chill air as she waits. Sitting at first, perched on one of the huge granite blocks that line the building’s entrance, then pacing when sitting on the frigid cube proves too cold. She makes slow loops across the flagstone courtyard, tracing with her boots the place where the orderly stone gives way to the weathered asphalt of the sidewalk. A few times light flares in the gloomy twilight, and she pulls her hat lower, squinting — but then they pass.

Until one doesn’t.

The car slows, and she shields her eyes with her bladed hand, heart pounding louder as it approaches. It stops beside the curb, directional blinking — and the figure in the driver’s seat leans over, the dome light snapping on as he pops the passenger door.

Aleks. A torrid rush goes through her seeing him again. Her memory wasn’t lying; he really is that vivid, that vital. So handsome that Alina feels like she’s gawping at him as his glasses flash with the light.

“Come on,” he calls, a perfect, crooked grin spreading over his face as he sees her. “Get in before you turn into an icicle!”

She hurries over to the open door, swinging her bag into her lap as she scoots around the open passenger seat. So tidy, holy shit. A satchel bulging with papers and folders lies on the backseat, and it’s devoid of the sea of trash that always crinkles around her feet in Mal’s truck — or used to in Genya’s, before she started picking up ridesharing gigs.

She shuts the passenger door with a soft thump, and then they’re alone together, side by side.

“Hi,” he says softly, his smile brighter than any of the crystalline stars.

“Hi,” she echoes — and only as the word leaves her lips does she realize that she’s grinning, too. The car smells like him, like sandalwood and fire and a thousand other scents she can’t name but make her come awake.

Is the moment eternal, or does it simply feel that way? Finally he twitches his head, blinking as he remembers himself. “I suppose we should get going.”

“Yeah,” Alina says, her voice shaking with a soft laugh as she buckles her seatbelt. “S’pose so.”

“Right.” 

He twitches the directional the opposite way, diligently checking for surrounding traffic even though the road is empty. Only then does he pull away from the curb, the nighted town beginning to scroll away beyond the window. 

Aleks watches the road carefully, glancing at her every so often. “How was your day?”

“Ehm…” Rewatched a reality series no one’s cared about in ten years, took a nap because I can’t stay awake all day, and looked for the backyard bush cat while I got stoned enough to talk to you without sounding like a hyperactive lunatic. “…decent? Felt like it dragged, though.”

He chuckles, the sound deep and mellow, enfolding her within the same heady embrace as his scent. “I understand completely.”

“How was your day?”

He blows out a breath, considering. “The usual shit show. Meetings, emails, trying to convince my students to actually read the texts rather than cribbing from Wikipedia… Not that it doesn’t have its place, mind, but it shouldn’t be the primary source. Not when you are, in fact, a literature major.” He throws her an apologetic look, silver streaks glittering as he drags his fingers through his hair. “Sorry, all very thrilling, I know.”

“It’s all right, I like hearing about it.” He’s so cute when he’s flustered. “What book is it?”

The Great Gatsby. Which I know most of them aren’t actually reading because half of them keep referring to Jay Gatsby as Leo.”

“Oof,” Alina laughs.

“Nah, it’s alright.” The corners of his full mouth quirk up. “A couple of them are actually doing the work, which is enough to keep the old lighthouse burning.”

She studies him under the waxing and waning streetlights. He’s wearing a dark sweater and a blazer, the one with the elbow patches, navy jeans accentuating his muscular thighs. “You sound very, like … academia-daddy.”

Excuse me?” His dark brows hitch halfway to his hairline. “Did you just call me Academia Daddy?

“No, sorry—” Alina giggles nervously as he gapes playfully. “I just meant—”

“Stammer all you want now,” he tells her, shaking his head with mock sternness. “I’ll make you explain yourself later, you young whippersnapper.”

He’s teasing, but there’s a glint of warning hidden beneath. Or maybe Alina’s just imagining it as the photos from his Kinkatopia profile flash through her mind.

“Seriously, though, I hope your roommate doesn’t mind me stealing you away.” Maybe he senses something in the way she shifts at his question, because when he glances at her again his black gaze is sharper. “You did tell them that you were going out on a date, didn’t you?”

Alina cringes internally. “I don’t really think Mal would understand.”

“Your friend Genya, then.”

“I mean, she knows I’m going to see you again at some point—”

She breaks off, yelping as the car swerves. Aleks slaps the directional again and pulls to a stop at the side of the narrow road, throwing the sedan into park — and when he turns to her his expression is utterly serious. “Take out your phone, and text her,” he says. Calm but firm. “Right now, please.”

What?

“Alina, are you telling me that no one knows where you are right now, apart from me?”

“It sounds exponentially worse when you say it like that,” she mutters mutinously, face heating as she scrabbles through her bag for the rectangular brick. “You’re old enough to remember the Library of Alexandria, surely you remember the days when we all got along without cell phones.”

His full lips clamp tighter as the words Library of Alexandria tumble out of hers, but he’s still deathly cool. “I do — and one thing I recall in particular is that we always told someone where we were going .” Finally her phone’s there in her hand, and she raises an eyebrow at him, but he’s unfazed. “Don’t give me that look, young lady. Text her my address, and that we’re headed there now, for accountability’s sake.”

Young lady, ” Alina mutters sourly as she types.

Alina : Headed to Aleks’ place with him, 1113 Starless Way

Alina : He’s making me tell you “for accountability’s sake”

She holds out her phone, showing him when she’s done. “Happy, Daddy?”

Daddy, ” he scoffs — but he’s mollified enough to put the car back into gear and keep driving. His eyes narrow with curiosity as he steals another glance at her. “If I’m too old for you—”

“You’re not too old for me, I’m just giving you shit for calling me young lady .”

“Ah. Given that you hadn’t told them, I thought I should ask.”

“I’m not weirded out or anything. I didn’t tell them because … well …” Might as well be honest. “Actually, I was going to tell Mal, but then he started trying to tell me that I’d get physically overpowered for being disabled, basically.”

Aleks blinks, startled. “Oh.”

“And Genya” —Alina sucks in a breath— “I know she’s going to be happy if things work out between you and me, and we start seeing each other or whatever, but if they don’t … I just don’t want her worrying about me. She’s got a lot going on.”

“That’s thoughtful of you,” he tells her patiently, “but I’m sure she doesn’t see being your safe text buddy as a burden, regardless of what happens between us.”

Her phone buzzes, and she thumbs the alert open.

“What does she say?”

He’s right and omg if you DO have sex I demand at least a vague retelling, he’s hot AF, ” Alina relays innocently. It’s hard to tell in the dim light, but Aleks’ sudden stillness suggests he’s gone apoplectic. “ AF means as fuck , by the way.”

“I know what AF means, Alina.” She watches him, waiting — and finally he glances at her again, that little furrow appearing between his brows again. “What?”

“That’s all you have to say?”

“You mean, am I going to react to her assumption that we’re going to have sex?” Aleks drawls.

Her core burns to life, hot and needy. Am I the only one who doesn’t know the answer to that question? “Well … um … are we? Going to have sex, I mean.”

“Would you like to?” He sounds like he’s asking her if she’d like rainbow sprinkles on her ice cream, not, well—

“I mean, I figured you weren’t asking me back to your place to make daisy chains,” she mutters — and though Aleks chuckles, he shakes his head.

“That’s not what I asked. I want to know” —He glances at her, his black gaze smoldering into her body like a physical caress— “if you want to have sex with me, Alina.”

Yes. Yesyesyes

“I think so,” she admits stubbornly, fiddling with the hem of her t-shirt. “W-What about you?”

“Yes,” he says softly — but that one world fills the car, coiling around her limbs and making her tremble in the passenger seat. “I think I’d like that, too. Very much.”

“Glad we’re in agreement, then.”

A chuckle buzzes behind Alek’s closed lips, and her heart leaps as his palm warms her thigh, settling just above her knee. She tentatively covers his hand with her own, and their fingers fit together perfectly, her smaller ones lacing between his as the car hums onward into the night.

Chapter Text

The house is set back from the road, peeking through a thin veil of trees as Aleks slows. The driveway is short, simple, just a winding length of packed dirt — and the sedan barrumps over the uneven ground, coming to a stop in front of a garage door.

He shifts the car into park and the motor quiets. Ahead of them, the headlights pool on  weathered cedar shingles framing a silver door. Everything beyond is lost to the blue moonlight.

Aleks smiles. “This is me.”

He doesn’t wait, maybe giving her a moment to collect herself as he gets out, leaving the headlights on and collecting his satchel from the backseat. She’s grateful that he’s looking elsewhere as she awkwardly unbuckles and slips out into the budding night.

The clearing is framed by pines that tower over the house and its skirt of overgrown gardens. A long, orderly line of split wood stands ready for the winter, and the scent of smoke trails through the breeze. The bright coin of the moon shines through the thistled boughs, silver-blue light illuminating the forest hollow, and the distant hoot of an owl finds them through the trees.

Alina’s struck by the quiet. Os Kervo is hardly busy at night, but still there always seems to be a sort of closeness, the clunk of car doors and boisterous shouts echoing across the harbor. Here it’s as though the rest of the world has simply fallen away; all that exists is the woods and this little haven.

It’s so lovely, like being on the moon. So far away from all the rest of that stupid shit back home.

Aleks snaps the headlights off, and then she can see it all without having to squint. The house is beautiful for its simplicity, set into the side of a low rise that swallows the bottom storey on the opposite end from the garage door. Two more floors rise overhead — but the building is narrow and square, perhaps twenty feet on each side.

“It’s like a little tower,” Alina murmurs as Aleks joins her.

His hand settles on the small of her back, and he nods to the soft amber lanterns that flank the door ahead. “Come on, then. Might not be bigger on the inside, but at least it’s warmer.”

They’re almost to the door, Alina practically purring from the soft pressure of his hand at her waist, when a small shape blunders out of the shadows.

“Mrs. Bates!” There’s no mistaking the tiny grey cat, her grizzled muzzle perfectly matching the censure in her yellow gaze.

Aleks grimaces, and his steps slow. “Better not, she’s a bit … temperamental.”

Yet the little creature seems to have an agenda all her own. She marches toward them, mincing over the patterned pavers until she glowers up at the six-foot-plus man beside Alina and opens her tiny pink mouth, blatting hoarsely.

“You have your own door, ma’am,” Aleks tells the cat patiently, indicating a flap that’s set into a lower corner of the garage roll-away. “And your own bloody house.

Alina snickers. Professor Morozova, cat daddy. “Does she?”

“It’s around back. And yet…”

Aleks’ warning notwithstanding, Alina isn’t worried. Mrs. Bates’ yellow eyes are like the lanterns flanking the door — not hostile, simply watchful as she gazes up at them, shifting her weight between her front feet.

Alina crouches, and the grey cat headbutts her hand, strength disproportionate to her tiny frame. “Hello there, love.” She gives Mrs. Bates’ muzzle a tentative scritch, and the furry creature leans into Alina’s touch, forepaws still making slow tippy-taps on the flat stone. “Aww, you’re a total sweetheart, aren’t you?”

“She does seem to know a sucker on sight,” Aleks remarks dryly, moving around them to unlock the door. At the click of the latch the cat turns, trotting past the tall man and into the slender crack between door and frame, vanishing with a flick of her ringed tail.

“Clearly,” Alina says with a pointed glance.

Aleks chuckles, the very picture of innocence. “I’ve absolutely no idea what you mean.”

He leaves the door open as he moves inside, letting her follow at her own pace. The space within is entirely open save for a wooden pillar at the very center, running upward through the heart of the house, a planed-smooth Yggdrasil. A futon sits against the wall to the right, beyond a neat shoe rack; further along in the corner, a stacked washer and dryer guard a water heater.

“Welcome to the Rathskellar,” he says as they kick off their boots. The neatness of the cement floor makes Alina suspect that he never actually uses it for his car — and a grey blur whips out of sight up the stairs on the far side of the basement.

What does he do down here? She narrows her eyes at Aleks as he turns back. “Futon, but no tv?”

“It’s for a different sort of viewing party,” he says with a mischievous grin.

Oh. Oh.

Alina follows him up the stairs to the second floor. Here the floor is polished wood, the planks fitting together so perfectly that it looks like a sea of striated amber glass. As below, the room is entirely open, areas sectioned off more by apparent use than walls. 

A banked woodstove slumbers in one corner of the house, its pipe angling out through the wall beside a door to the moonlit clearing. A stove, sink, and refrigerator interrupted by countertops line another quarter of the space; beyond the fridge lies a wall of books that would put the Beast’s library to shame. 

“Oh my god! ” Alina exclaims.

There’s more to this part of the room, of course — a desk with a colorshifting PC tower and slumbering monitor, a television resting on a sleek black console in the corner, a threadbare loveseat angled toward the screen — but it’s the thousands of tomes that absorb her attention. Everything from turn-of-the-century volumes, their cloth bindings dull with age, to mass-produced paperbacks from the 1990s.

Everywhere Alina turns her gaze she finds familiar friends, and she can hear Aleks chuckling quietly behind her as she explores the sprawling shelves.

Verne. Poe. McCaffrey. Nix. Zahn. Meyer. So many that it’s like walking into that little bookstore in Bangor, its humble corners home to a labyrinth of bindings.

The Book of Ti’ana? ” Alina tugs the fat green paperback out of line, holding it up for his inspection. “Seriously?”

His brow furrows. “What’s wrong with Myst?”

“Nothing — I just wouldn’t have thought to find this book on a shelf with Tennyson. It’s so niche .” She replaces the book carefully and continues her reconnaissance, laughing openly as she finds the line of figurines illuminated on a special shelf. “Are these Gundam minifigs?”

His grin is even brighter than the lines of twinkle lights that chase each other around the room’s upper walls. “Yeah — you a fan?”

“I’ve sorta seen it around. It’s, like … mechas, right?”

“OG mechas, actually,” he says with a glint of fannish pride.

“So should I thank them for D.va?” She spares him a glance, and a smile. “Overwatch.”

“Yeah, I know Overwatch.” His grin is incandescent, making something pleasant tug deep in her belly. “Not even a little surprised that you’d play a tank.”

“Hey now, what’s that supposed to mean?”

He shrugs. “I mean team players usually end up rotating between tank and healer, so I had a fifty-fifty shot of getting that right.”

“You’d’ve been right either way,” Alina admits. “I play — or back when I used to play, before my W-A-S-D hand got taken out” —She holds up her left hand, fingers dangling in their usual half-clawed pose— “I played both. Mostly because DPS mains are douchebags.”

“As a douchebag, I concur,” Aleks tells her, eyes crinkling — and she instinctively looks away as her heart skitters in her chest.

The minifigs’ intricate paint jobs merit a lingering look. The color work is precise, fascinating. “Did you do these yourself?”

“The whole place, actually.”

Alina glances around, but between books and windows, there’s hardly a square inch of bare wall visible. “You … painted it?”

His laugh is warm, honeyed with satisfaction. “I built it.”

“You built… ” She gapes around with a renewed appreciation. “Sorry, my generation’s going to be renting forever … the idea of buying a house, let alone building one…” It’s not as though he needs her approval, but she awkwardly bobs her head. “Well done you.”

“Thanks. D’you want to…?” He trails off, a note of invitation in his voice as he slips out of his blazer, hanging it over one of several chairs gathered around a table in the kitchen. The black sweater beneath shows off his slim torso, and Alina tries not to drool as she unslings her bag and shrugs out of her jacket, settling both on one end of the loveseat. 

Her skin pebbles at the faint chill in the air, but Aleks is already loading a few more logs into the woodstove, and flames quickly leap to life. I doubt it’ll stay cool for long, that stove’s beefy. He handles the thing deftly, his movements practiced — and she knows she’s staring but she can’t stop herself. Not until he straightens and turns back to her, gesturing to the living room.

“So, er, it’s a pretty quick tour. This is where I spend most of my time, reading, gaming, whatever… Spent a lot of time here during lockdown,” he adds with a faint grimace. “Now it’s back to being my own space instead of a pseudo-classroom, thank fuck.”

An identical set of steps leads upward and out of sight — and Alina follows Aleks up the narrow stairway, peering out the trio of portal-style windows that overlook the forest along the way.

“Room of Requirement,” he says at the top of the stairs, indicating what’s clearly a bathroom. Alina snorts with laughter, and he glances back, pretending to be baffled by her mirth. “What? It has yet to not be here when I require it.”

His feigned innocence only makes her laugh louder, but she catches the hint of a smile as he turns away.

The rest of the floor is a single room, and Alina’s heart beats faster as she gazes around. An unlit iron chandelier hangs from the ceiling, and the far corner is dominated by a canopied bed that’s simpler, more elegant than any she’s ever seen. Not archaic but modern … I wonder if he built that, too. The walls here are a rich crimson red, the wood of both the four-poster bed and the floor dark and glossy.

There’s no escaping it. Aleks’ bedroom is sexy.

Books line a few of the walls, but there are other things here, too — and Alina’s breath catches with excitement as she sees the rectangular cubbies filled with a vibrant rainbow of colors. “Is that what I think it is?”

Aleks doesn’t say anything, but his lips tilt in that hidden smile, the one that makes his eyes crinkle and the bridge of his nose scrunch. He strolls over to the cubbies and reaches into one receptacle, pulling out an emerald parcel the size of a large bar of soap. 

It is. It must be.

He twists his first two fingers into the lump, drawing a loop of green line away from the center of the mass in a skein of pure color.

Then, as if by magic, the entire Gordian knot falls apart in his hands, resolving into a single long ribbon the width of his thumb. He bends it double, taming the green cascade with graceful fingers, laying it over the palm of his free hand.

Rope.

She’s seen it before, but never from so close. It’s nothing like the roughspun lengths available at the hardware store; this is smooth, the round line shining silkily as he displays it for her.

“Multifilament polypropylene — MFP.” Another smile tugs at his lips, half-hidden in his scruff. “You can touch it, I promise it’s clean.”

It’s as soft as it looks, her fingertips skating over the surface. “How do you clean rope?

“Remember how you said something earlier about daisy chains?” He drops one of the lines, straightening it out and then weaving a quick series of links. “Gather up the whole thing like this, toss it in a garment bag, and into the washing machine it goes.”

“That easy,” she marvels.

His lips curve. Alina wishes they were pressed against her own. “That easy.”

She glances away as he straightens the rope and twists it back into a fist-sized bundle. “I still can’t believe you built all this yourself, that’s wild.”

“It took a couple of years, mind you, between the paperwork and everything — but I like to think it was worth it.”

Alina nods to the orderly cubbies. “And were you this tidy before you built it?”

He chuckles as he tucks the emerald skein back into place with its companions. “Mainly after. Cut enough boards wrong and you start getting uptight about things going in the wrong places.”

“Is that so?” she asks, batting her eyelashes as Aleks realizes what he’s said and starts to redden. She hides a grin. Yep, being flustered definitely agrees with him.

“You know what I mean, saucy miss. Besides, all that work gave me time to think up clever things like this.”

He walks to the iron chandelier — and though she’s waiting for him to turn it on as he reaches up, instead he lifts the entire metal ring off its hook. No wires, no plugs … it’s just hanging there.

Aleks flashes her that roguish grin. “Hard point for rope suspension, cunningly concealed in plain sight.”

“And was this before or after the ex?” she asks carefully.

“After.” There’s a grief to the way he says the word, and he replaces the chandelier on its hook. “Sorry, enough boasting — let’s go back down.”

The photograph catches her eye on the way back through the narrow hall at the top of the stairs. It’s hanging in the corner just past the bathroom, the only photograph she’s seen in the whole place.

She stops before it, Aleks pausing beside her. The dark-haired man she recognizes, even though he’s visibly younger here, his hair more black than silver — and he’s grinning, arms wound about a lithe blonde woman who’s suspended above the ground in an intricate rope harness. 

Alina knows the heart tattoo, the geometric lines sharp against the woman’s slight curves, but she asks all the same: “Is this your ex?”

“Luda.” For a moment that veneer of confidence slips, and his eyes are hollow with grief. It’s a pain Alina remembers from the mirror, one she still sees when she least expects it. “I suppose I’ve never thought of taking it down.”

He moves to touch it but she catches his hand, stopping him from removing it — and his gaze is wide. Startled. It’s not like it’s hanging over his bed, or even in his room. “Don’t. I understand.”

His voice is hoarse, wary. “You do?”

She lets her fingers slip through his, gesturing to the picture. “You miss the person you used to be with her. Before you felt … abandoned.”

A moment passes, and then he nods. “Something like that.”

Her stomach drops into a pit. “I hate asking, but I sorta have to, just for me…” Alina fidgets, twisting her good fingers together with the bad ones. “You’re not, like, still hung up on her, are you?”

“No,” Aleks says softly. Firmly. “I’ve processed things.”

“Okay.” She takes a deep breath, letting it out slowly. I’m not threatened by a photograph. “Then…”

She takes one step down. Then another. Letting her good hand skate along the banister in case she trips.

Aleks follows.

“So what has your dating life been like?” Alina asks as the living room sprawls before them again.

“Honestly? Short-term flings, a few one-night stands…” He sighs, running a hand over his bearded jaw as they settle onto the loveseat. “The community is tight-knit, so I try to keep my forays limited.”

“So nothing, like, serious?” It’s a relief.  At least I’m not the only one who’s rusty.

“A couple dates, but nothing significant.” His voice stays casual, but curiosity dances in his eyes. “And you?”

“Gods, no. I’ve had enough trouble keeping my head above water.” Alina winces faintly at the memory. “I’d actually promised myself after my ex — Nikolai — and I split that I was going to keep to myself from now on.”

He chuckles, starting to look mischievous again. “And how’s that working out for you?”

“Brilliantly, obviously,” Alina says wryly, rolling her eyes. “One step away from becoming a fish-nun. Just find me a faraway island at the other end of the galaxy.”

“Never,” Aleks murmurs, and the soft word sends a thrill down her spine.

For a long moment they simply gaze at each other, Alina’s heart sparking in her chest as his obsidian gaze simmers into her. One kiss and she’d be in his arms — she knows it as her lips tingle, burn, ache for him.

Then his eyes narrow and his mouth pops open as though he’s just remembered the kettle’s on, but it still takes him a moment to speak. “I know we’d discussed watching something, but I just had an idea.” He glances between her and his computer, holding up a hand as though worried she’s about to bolt. “Give me, like, two minutes?”

She’s curious enough to wait. “Sure.”

Mrs. Bates hops up to claim Aleks’s spot as he scrambles into the rolling gaming chair parked before his computer, clicking and typing furiously, muttering to himself. The old cat headbutts her numb hand, and Alina’s caught between snickering at her antics and trying to figure out what the hell the older man is up to.

Finally he spins back to her, excitement and concern warring on his face as words spill out in a rush: “Alright, so I wouldn’t’ve thought of this if you hadn’t mentioned you’re into Star Wars, too — and then Overwatch as well — but have you…” His brow contorts, and he leans back like he’s bracing for her to shout at him. “…ever wanted to be a Jedi?”

The answer’s simple, but Alina is too caught off-guard to do anything but gape for a few long moments. What? “Um … well, I used to.”

“Used to,” he echoes with equal parts confusion and disappointment.

She jerks her good shoulder in a lopsided shrug. “Now I’m more, like … Sith.”

“Ah.” His worry fades, melting into a tentative smile. “But either way, lightsaber?”

“Lightsaber,” Alina agrees.

“Right then. Feel free to tell me where to stick this, but…”

He rolls aside, revealing what he’s been up to — and vibrant colors shout at her as she reads the game’s splash screen: “Beatsaber?”

Aleks lifts a futuristic set of goggles from a stand on his desk and holds them out to her, his breathtaking gaze alight with enough mischief to put Loki to shame. “Have you ever tried VR before, Miss Starkov?”


An hour later Alina’s heart is racing — and not from simply staring at Aleks.

It is like being an intergalactic monk, the energy blade firm in her hand as multicolored blocks whizz toward her through the dark voice. The hilt buzzes with the contact as she deftly slices the blocks apart in time to the thumping beat, but there are more tumbling along behind them, threatening to overwhelm her.

And finally, they do.

“Aw, dammit! ” Alina growls. She nudges the goggles up onto her brow, squinting as her eyes readjust to the soft light — and Aleks is waiting there to welcome her with his perfect, lopsided grin. “Once you start missing…”

“Nah, you did well — especially for just picking it up tonight.” His voice is sunlight, bathing her in his warmth.

She hands off the controller first and then the headset, handling them gingerly; the last thing she needs is to damage his tech. Then they trade places, him standing in the cleared-out space, her perching on the loveseat that they shoved flush against the wall.

Aleks takes up a coiled stance, the monitor following along from his viewpoint as he clicks through the options. “Get ready to witness the mastery.” He snorts. “Of course, now that I’ve said that, it’ll probably be disaster-y…” His masked face swivels in her direction like he can see her. “Paying attention?”

“I’m surprised you can see anything with the blast shield down, Professor.”

He laughs — but then stumbles aside, flailing as the boxes stream toward him. “Oh shit.”

And Alina is paying attention, though not to the monitor. Aleks’ sweater lies on the loveseat, discarded beside her jacket, and the simple black t-shirt shows off his lithe form. His arms are corded with muscle, and though he’s lean, he’s still somehow broad. Big. Bigger than me, by a lot.

The way he discussed having sex, so calm and forthright, is diametrically opposed to the way he’s attacking the game, throwing his whole body into it. His movements are practiced, sharp with certainty — and Alina stares at the way his huge hand cradles the controller, practically devouring the plastic thing with his grip.

If he held me like that…  

She claps her hand against her thigh, applauding as Aleks finishes with a flourish. “My skills are limited, but fearsome. If you’re a digital block, anyway.” He trades the goggles for his glasses, tousling his hair as he sets both headset and the controller down on his desk. “D’you want another go?”

Alina shakes her head. Any more and we’ll just be playing this all night . “I’m good, but thanks — for all of this, actually.”

“What, for introducing you to Beatsaber?” He shoots her a confused look as he closes out of the program and settles his glasses on the bridge of his nose again. “Ah, it’s nothing, just had it lying around on the hard drive.”

“It’s not nothing,” she insists. “I haven’t played anything in gods know how long, this actually, uh…” She can feel herself reddening under his gaze. Pull it together, Starkov. “…it means a lot to me.” 

She hops off the loveseat, grabbing one side as Aleks takes the other — but really it’s his strength that slides the thing back into place, angling it before the television. “So is that how you stay fit — VR?”

“Ah, so you think I’m fit,” he smirks as they resettle, knees nudging against each other. “Good to know.”

Alina rolls her eyes.

“Come here, you little nerd.” His arm slips around her waist, pulling her close, and even though her heart’s pounding violently enough to shake her ribcage she molds herself against him without even having to think about it. They just fit , her cheek settling against the hollow of his neck as he catches her legs, drawing them over his lap.

His skin is so hot against her forehead, as though there’s magma flowing in his veins instead of blood. The strangest part is that she can feel his heartbeat, too, the tattoo just as forceful as her own as his thumb scrawls mindless circles on her thigh. 

“You’re nervous?” she murmurs, half-drunk on the twin scents of woodsmoke and him .

Aleks laughs quietly. “You aren’t?”

Alina tilts her head back, slowly, hesitantly, and he wordlessly turns to meet her. For an exquisite moment his forehead touches hers, the tip of their noses grazing each other. Then Aleks pushes in closer, nuzzling into her, and she murmurs as his lips seal against hers in a hungry kiss.

A glimmering rush of starlight passes through her body — and she lifts her hand to his jaw, his beard scratching her palm as she cups his cheek.

Need . It’s the first time she’s felt like this in, well … years, at least. But no one’s ever touched her the way Aleks does now, cradling her against him as his tongue gently probes her mouth.

Her body responds with violent hunger, and she finds herself dragging her teeth over his lower lip, nudging into him as he pulls her closer still. The weight of his hand vanishes from her thigh, and she murmurs into him as his hand skims up her neck, thumb settling lightly on her jaw.

“I don’t want to push you,” Aleks mutters between kisses, his voice husky with desire.

“You’re not.” An awful thought occurs to her: “Am I pushing you?

“Hell no. But we should…” His jaw creaks as he draws back, like he’s forcing himself back, but his arm is still snug about her body as he studies her. “What kind of protection do you want to use?”

Alina blinks. Oh. Right. “Chemo nuked me pretty hard, but I’m on the pill anyway. And I don’t have any STIs.” She gnaws her lower lip. “I haven’t had sex since before cancer, actually.”

“So you and your ex didn’t—”

She shakes her head, and luckily, he seems to understand. Good; now isn’t the time for all of that to come up. “Well, I’m— I just got tested on Monday,” Aleks tells her. “All clear. I’ve got my results in my portal—”

He reaches for his cell phone, sitting on the arm of the loveseat, but Alina stops him, laughing softly. “It’s all right, I believe you.”

His face clouds with displeasure — or worry. “You’re very trusting.”

“I know where you live and where you work. And in the non-stalker-y sense, I know that accountability matters to you,” she adds.

“True,” he mutters, his eyes black.

Alina can hardly breathe, hardly move from the way her heart’s hammering. We’re talking about this. We’re really talking about this. Between his touch and the topic she’s utterly drenched, panties wedged in her pussycrack as pleasure flutters shallowly in her clit. “Do you want to wear a condom?”

Aleks inhales sharply, pupils blown out as he stares at her. Then he chuckles breathlessly. “You can’t ask me a question like that.”

“Why not?” Alina fights an impish grin. She knows the answer, of course — but there’s a curious power in the way his fingers flex tighter on her as she asks, her nerves thrumming with anticipation.

“I should, ” he mutters.

She lets her hand stray down the side of his neck to his chest, fingers tangling in the soft fabric of his t-shirt. “Are you talking to yourself or me?”

“The idea of coming inside you…” Did he notice bareback in her list of fetishes on Kinkatopia? Surely he did. The man misses nothing.

Fuck ,” she hisses softly, her hand tightening to a fist as something deep in her belly clenches, too.

“Oh you like that, do you?” Aleks chuckles, and there’s that tension in his face again. The control. “One thing at a time, sweetheart.”

It hardly seems to take any effort for him to drag her over his lap sideways, his lips reclaiming hers, and she stiffens as his hand catches her breast. He thumbs her nipple through the thin fabric of her shirt, tracing circles around the peak until it stiffens. Kneading the swell with increasing urgency — and something hard throbs against the side of her thigh as his breath warms her cheek.

She cards her fingers through his silver-shot hair — and fuck , it’s so soft, the perfect counterpoint to his harsh ministrations. 

“This isn’t fair,” Alina groans as Aleks turns his attention to her neck, sucking and biting her skin as his hand slips up the front of her shirt to swallow her breast. Only her lacy bra separates them, and he finds the knot of her nipple again, worrying at it through the fabric.

His breath buzzes the shell of her ear, and his voice is mockingly tender: “Aww, no?”

“You have part of me to play with.”

He twists her nipple like a gentle reproach, but his lips are quirked up, his voice rich with amusement. “Is that whining I hear?”

Whining? ” Alina huffs. She rolls her hips, squirming just enough to make his hips nudge up against her arse in an eager snap. “I’m not whining, I’m stating a fact.”

Aleks only heaves her higher in his lap, chuckling as he sways back far enough to regard her. “Yeah, there’s a bit of the brat in you.”

She sticks out her tongue. “What does that say about you?

“If you’d read my profile carefully, you would’ve noticed the phrase brat tamer ,” he says with a smirk that makes Alina’s mouth pop open.

“Oh,” she breathes.

“Yeah, oh. ” Aleks arches an eyebrow as his hand slides down to claim her thigh again. “And you’ll have plenty of me soon, darling. Don’t you fret about that.”

Chapter Text

Aleks’s lips crash against hers, and Alina drinks him in, yanking at his shirt as he clutches her closer. She squirms in his lap — and whether it’s her or him or both of them together, suddenly she’s straddling him, moaning as the rigid line of his erection nudges against her there.

The leggings are soft, thin, and she whimpers with pleasure as he grinds against her pussy. One of his hands is at the small of her back, the other splayed between her shoulder blades, and he moves against her wordlessly. Desperately. Clutching her to him like he’s drowning.

Fuck!

Enough, ” Aleks growls into her skin.

Suddenly his hands are at her waist, urging her away. She stares down at him panting and wide-eyed with alarm.

“Upstairs. Let’s go, miss.” He maneuvers her to her feet, steadying her as he rises, too. “I’m not having your first post-cancer fuck be on my couch.”

“Fine,” Alina huffs — and then yelps as Aleks swats her ass.

“Better hurry, or I’ll throw you over my shoulder,” he warns, and the hungry glint in his eye makes her scurry up the stairs, giggling as his footsteps thunder just behind her.

Alina only stops when she’s in his bedroom, but the sight of the four-poster bed stops her short. She turns back just as Aleks strides to meet her — and then his arms are around her again. The tall man stoops to nuzzle into Alina, kissing her and walking her back until the mattress hits the back of her thighs.

She yelps again as he boosts her up onto the bed, and nods to the riot of colors in their cubbies across the room. “Is any of that coming out tonight?”

“It most certainly is not,” Aleks chides. “Without having prenegotiated anything?” He clicks his tongue, shaking his head in mock disappointment. “Naughty girl.”

“Disappointing,” Alina sighs — but then she sucks in a breath as he bends forward, propping his fists outside her thighs and gazing down at her.

Disappointing? ” His black gaze sparkles with amusement. “I can do plenty with just my hands, Alinochka.”

She wraps her arms around his neck — awkwardly, given the bad one’s limitations and the way he’s leaning over her — and his plush lips find hers, devouring her as he nudges her knees open to stand between them. His hands push up under the back of her shirt, skimming higher to settle on her bra. The band twangs tighter and then abruptly loosens, hanging slack about her ribs.

“I did warn you,” he murmurs into her lips.

Alina swallows a giggle.

His arm slides around her waist, lifting her bodily and dragging her up onto the bed. She scrabbles at the dark comforter, but he settles her down gently enough, kneeling between her spread thighs.

“If this is too fast—”

By way of answer, Alina drags her shirt off over her head, pulling her unstrung bra off, too — and then she’s sitting in his bed, naked from the waist up as his dark, ravenous gaze takes her in.

She tugs mutely at his shirt, and he yanks it off, dropping it aside, too. His chest is broad, sharply defined with a dusting of dark hair, and Alina knows she’s staring at him but she can’t help herself. He’s so surreal but so perfect, and she bites her lip, hiding a smile as she taps her temple. Your glasses, Professor. “Planning to leave these on?”

“I’ll take them off when I’m ready, little brat.” he hums, running his hand up the outside of her thigh. “And speaking of bottoms, pants off. Now .”

Hello Daddy.

Alina grins and scoots back against the pillows, wriggling out of her leggings as Aleks moves up beside her. As soon as they’re off the older man pulls her over him again, the rough denim of his jeans abrading her inner thighs deliciously as she braces herself against his chest.

His arm encircles her like a ring of iron, and she cries out as his other hand heats her cotton-swathed crux, his strong fingers dragging along the wet line of her pussy. The crotch of her panties is so drenched that she feels everything, her spine arching with rapture as he finds her clit.

“Not like this,” Alina moans — but he’s holding her tight, pinning her in his lap as she rides his hand. “I want more.”

“I told you, pet, first things first.” He’s amused, practically gloating as he strokes her, demanding her pleasure. “God, you’re a feral little thing.”

“And you’re the one to train me, brat tamer?” she demands breathlessly, lifting her chin to stare down at him.

He chuckles, his eyes glittering with danger. “Yes. I am.”

Alina groans as he shoves his hand down the front of her panties, thick fingers skating through her folds and spreading her open. She’s too wet to offer any resistance as he dips into her entrance, his thumb settling on the button of her clit and drawing slow circles in time with his shallow intrusions.

“Oh fuck,” she gasps, rocking her hips in time with his insistent rhythm.

“Alina…” The warmth of his breath against her neck makes her skin pebble, and her diamond-hard nipples skate against his chest as she leans into him. He kisses her, lingering as he hooks his fingers deeper inside her soaked cunt, caressing her soft inner walls. “Come for me, solnishka .”

“I want your cock, Aleks,” she begs, hating the neediness in her voice but more turned on than ever by his condescending chuckle.

“Greedy little thing.” The gentle swat on her ass cheek makes her go whip-taut — and then his arm binds her waist again as he forces his fingers deeper, thumbing her clit until she’s trapped by throbbing pleasure. “I’m generously proportioned, and I don’t want to hurt you.”

“Generously proportioned,” she scoffs.

He smirks, unbothered. “Just facts, love.”

Fuck.

“What if I want you to hurt me?” Ecstasy is gathering in her womb, her pussy clenching about his fingers as he kneads her harder. “Aleks, I need it to hurt, I can’t come if it doesn’t—”

She breaks off with a startled mewl as he bites her breast, tracing a wet circle around her areola with his tongue before sucking her nipple into his mouth. He tugs the hard peak between his teeth and twists a third finger into her cunt, spreading her open — and she clings to him as the orgasm takes her, shuddering in euphoric release.

Aleks pushes into her a few more times, milking the last fragments of pleasure from her before carefully withdrawing. He grins as he lays her down beside him, the comforter soft against her flushed skin. “Painful enough for you, my little masochist?”

“Barely,” she sniffs, playfully haughty.

Aleks barks with laughter as he drags her panties off. Then he lies back and gathers her into his arms, sobering as he traces the line of her scar with her fingertip. “Does it hurt here?”

She shakes her head, studying him as his dark gaze roves over her body. “My meds take care of that. Mostly it’s my arm.” Her eyebrows knit with the effort of trying to put it into words that won’t scare him. “It feels cold, just sorta … all the time, really. Like it’s asleep.”

His fingers move to the raised coin of skin on the other side of her chest. “And this?”

“That’s my port — and yeah, it can hurt. Plus there’s a line that runs from here” —Alina traces it with her fingertip, following the pain to its root at the base of her neck— “to here. So y’know … please don’t smack it,” she finishes with an abashed smile.

He rolls her higher onto his chest and grabs a handful of her ass, grinning evilly as she yelps. “How about this?”

That you can play with to your heart’s content.”

He smacks the full swell of her rump, caressing her as the tingling spreads through her flesh. “What a perfect arse you have.”

“You can go harder than that, ” Alina snorts, rolling her eyes. “I’m not going to break.”

He punctuates each word with a soft slap, more sound than substance: “Not. Tonight. Brat.”

Anxiety crests in her chest; this is one of the things that’s hardest to admit. Even now it feels shameful, like he might be disgusted. “Aleks, if it isn’t rough, I can’t—”

“I told you, I have other ways of punishing you, Alina,” he interrupts coolly.

His glasses sharpen his onyx stare, and she settles back on the pillows, watching as he slides to the side of the bed and stands. He faces her, that handsome smirk playing over his lips as he thumbs his jeans open and drags the zipper down. His pants hang loose at his hips, and he reaches into his dark boxer briefs, and then—

Fuck, ” Alina blurts out as she stares at Aleks’ cock. He’s thick, long, veins standing out against his roused shaft as he preens for her. Should’ve known, with hands that big… 

He tilts his head to the side, watching her. Knowing her mouth is watering for him — or close enough. “Like what you see?”

She nods.

“You can touch if you want.” 

Alina crawls awkwardly across the bed and settles herself on the edge before him, legs dangling over the side. She glances up at him, and he nods, giving her tacit permission.

Just like riding a bike. A really, really big one.

His erection is rock-hard, and he twitches in her hand at her first tentative stroke, a breath hissing out between his clenched teeth. Streaks of precum already shine on his cockhead, and she traces his ridges with her thumb, smearing the wetness along the underside of his shaft.

Even the softest touch can make his huge body tremble, his prick swaying with need as his eyes hood with desire. “Holy shit, you’re good at that.”

“Yeah?” She pumps his length, only skimming her fingers over his sensitive skin, but it draws a groan from his lips. “I know it’s been a while, but—”

Alina leans forward, opening her mouth — but then his huge hand is there to catch her chin, stopping her short. He tilts her head back, forcing her to meet his stern gaze. “No.”

She licks her lips, suddenly uneasy. “You don’t want me to—”

“Not yet. I want you to enjoy this.”

“And you think I won’t enjoy sucking your cock?”

“I want to stay in control of myself,” Aleks tells her with a crooked smile, “and your mouth on my dick is not going to help that one iota.”

“Who the hell actually says iota? ” Alina grumbles mutinously as he guides her up off the bed and drags the blankets back to reveal black cotton sheets.

He spanks her gently again as she slides under the sheets. “The man who’s about to fuck you and your bratty little cunt.”

Her startled gasp is only half-feigned. “Professor, you have a filthy mouth.”

“Yeah, but you love it,” Aleks chuckles as he scoots into the bed just behind her, and she gets a glimpse of his muscular thighs before he pulls her close. He burns like the sun, his naked body pressed flush against hers as her aching pussy flutters with reawakening need. He cups her jaw, staring down at her face for a long moment like he’s trying to memorize every inch of her. “Fuck, you’re gorgeous.”

Then he rips his glasses off, tossing them onto his bedside table.

Finally.

Her injured arm is a blundering afterthought as Aleks drags her fully beneath him, and she throws the good one around his neck as he settles himself between her bare thighs. His cock nudges into her lower belly, but he nuzzles into her, reclaiming her lips in an ardent kiss.

Alina hums with need as he caresses her breast, her hip, bending her legs up beside his waist so that her soles are planted on the soft sheets. His shaft drags against her bared pussy, so hard that it makes her shiver.

“I can still grab a condom,” he mutters, glancing at his night table, “they’re just there—”

Alina cranes her head up, pressing a soft kiss to his lips. “I want to feel you inside me.” The words shake with the wild beating of her heart. “Aleks, I want you to come inside me, if you want that, too…”

He’s already moving, reaching down between their bodies to take himself in his hand. She cries out as his raw cockhead finds her, gliding through her folds as he teases her and soaks his glans in her arousal.

“Aleks, please —”

He notches himself against her entrance — and Alina throws her head back, whimpering with pleasure as he penetrates her, straining into her pussy inch by languid inch.

“God, you’re so fucking tight, ” he growls, and his hand catches the curve of her arse again as he thrusts harder, burying himself in her until she can feel every ridge, every vein.

Aleks. He’s on top of her, inside her, fucking into Alina and splitting her to her core. Her breaths shallow with the way he’s bending her open, and his lips stumble against hers in a distracted kiss. 

“Do you want to be on top, pet?” he asks, his voice tight with worry. “You’d be more in control.”

She shakes her head. I don’t want to be in control. “I want you to hold me down and fuck me hard,” she gasps out, her voice quavering as he throbs in her cunt.

Aleks draws her wrists up over her head, pinning them both to the pillow with one of his massive hands and bracing himself on his other forearm.

She wants to tell him no, to fight back against his grip and be forced back into submission — but not now. Maybe he won’t mind that later, but not tonight. Not without asking, especially when he’s been so conscientious.

The first sharp snap of his hips makes a guttural cry tear out of her chest. “ Yes! ” He withdraws a few inches and then slams deep again, filling her so utterly that it almost hurts to breathe. “ Fuck , Aleks, pleasepleaseplease —”

“So that’s how you like it.” He pistons into her, breaths rasping against her neck with each harsh stroke. His girth commands her attention, his raw shaft feeling thicker with every intrusion as he rails her. “Dirty, wanton, perfect girl—”

She shoves her hips up to meet Aleks, losing herself in the blissful rhythm as he pounds into her cunt. The beautiful stretch, the way he’s panting from it, too … it’s everything she could’ve wished for. Everything she did wish for, even when she was still married to Nik.

Godfuckingdamn, he’s going to make me come so hard…

Then the older man slows, torturing her, forcing the swell of her breast up to meet his full lips. Just when she thinks he’s completely distracted licking her nipple, he shoves deep, and she keens with ecstasy as he transfixes her.

“I want to tie you up and do terrible things to you,” he groans, holding her hips down as he bottoms out inside her.

“Yes,” Alina sobs, knotting her fingers in his hair. “I want you to wreck me, Aleks, I get so fucking wet whenever I think of you…“

His snarling breaths come faster, and his cadence quickens again, his thrusts in her belly becoming urgent. Somehow she can feel the brilliance gathering in him, hips stuttering as he nears, and he forces himself into her so roughly that the dull flat of his cockhead grazes her cervix.

“I’m close, Alya.” His voice is hoarse with need, the same anguish in his voice that’s burning through her.

“Don’t pull out of me,” she begs, nuzzling into him. “Please, Aleks, I want to take your cum, don’t stop…”

His lips stumble against her cheek in a clumsy kiss, and then he’s groaning as he nears, ravaging her with brutish lust. “Oh fuck —”

She clutches at him, whimpering as she begins to shatter — and the brutal way he’s fucking her makes light explode in her vision, everything going white-hot as she comes.

Aleks groans his pleasure as heat floods her pussy, the sudden shock of warmth making her clench harder around him.

For what might be an eternity they writhe together, working the last of the rapture from each other’s bodies. Then the older man finally collapses on top of her, muttering a single, triumphant word into her cheek — one she agrees with unreservedly.

Fuck.

Chapter Text

“So … what now?” Alina asks carefully as she drags on her shirt. The bra isn’t worth the complicated and unsexy dance of putting it on, not when she can just shove it in her jacket pocket. Not like he hasn’t seen it all already.

Aleks replaces his glasses on the bridge of his nose, studying her as they sit together on the edge of the rumpled bed. “What do you want, Alina?”

Her heart thumps softly. “I want to know what you want, Aleks.”

“Evasion is the opposite of vulnerability.”

“…he says, evading the question,” she murmurs with a wan smile.

“What I want…” He sighs and wraps his arms around her, dragging her onto him bodily once again as he lies back against the pillows. He tucks a wisp of short, white hair behind her ear, regarding her carefully as she settles her chin on his chest. “I want to see you again. Keep seeing you.”

“You don’t want to just leave this as one perfect night?” she murmurs.

“No, I most certainly do not,” he snorts quickly, and his dark brows knit in a scowl that makes her stomach lurch. “Why, do you?”

“No, I just…” Alina stares down at his skin, tracing wandering paths through the soft curls of his chest hair as she avoids his gaze. “Everything— This— You …” She shakes her head, his chin pivoting on his body as her guts twist. “When things seem too good to be true, it’s because they usually are.”

Fit, too good to be true … you’re full of compliments,” he chuckles softly, but his crooked smile pales to earnestness as she glances up at him again. He caresses the swell of her still-naked arse, the touch oddly soothing as his deep voice hums through her. “I think it’s only natural to worry that things won’t work out in one way or another. And if you feel like you’re not ready, I don’t want to push you.” He pauses, simply watching her for a moment. “But the truth is I like you. A lot. In all sorts of ways.”

Despite herself, the smile tugs at her lips. “I like you, too.”

“Whatever pace you want to take this at, we’ll figure it out,” he tells her softly.

Maybe she’s just imagining it, but gazing into his depthless eyes she sees it all — the worry, the uncertainty, the hope.

Hope most of all.

Alina squirms higher, awkwardly at first. Then he pulls her closer, letting her cradle his bearded cheek in her palm as she presses her mouth to his. Aleks’ tongue traces the seam of her lips, licking into her as he catches one of her ass cheeks in a huge hand, squeezing gently and letting his fingernails prick her skin.

It’s only been a few minutes but already his cock twitches against her thigh. His fingertips skate down the slope of her rump, finding her pussy from behind, and she moans into his mouth as he coaxes her open.

“Do we have time?” Alina asks, her voice strained as his fingers slide into her overwrought cunt, exploring her in rhythmic incursions.

“If you want.”

Struck by a sudden impulse, she pushes up away from him, settling herself back on her haunches. His cock is there before her face, and Aleks doesn’t stop her as she takes him in her hand, guiding him to her lips.

“Fuck,” he hisses as she licks him, scrawling swirling paths over his glans with her tongue.

She presses a wet kiss to the underside of his thickening shaft, giggling through her pressed-shut lips. “I told you, I like doing this.”

His hips stutter as she treats him to a long, slow lick, from base to tip and back again. “Clearly.”

Alina takes him deeper, relaxing her jaw and slowly bobbing her head, tongue flicking over his ridges as she fucks him with her mouth. What she can’t suck yet she grasps firmly, holding the base of his cock as he throbs under her fingertips.

He tastes good. Like his kiss, like heat and spice and musth, her own sticky arousal mingling with the sour trace of his cum.

Her hair isn’t long enough to pull, but Aleks caresses it, obsidian eyes growing heavy-lidded as she works him. He moans as she drags the flat of her tongue over the slit at the top of his cock, hips bucking up in instinctive need.

Fuck, sweetheart…”

His erection pops out of her mouth like a lolly as he catches Alina under her arms and drags her up again, resettling her against his chest. His mouth seals against her, harsh and hungry, one arm cradling her against him as his other hand plunges between their bodies. She whimpers as he catches himself in his hand, and his hips surge beneath hers as he readjusts. 

Then Aleks is pushing into her again, wet and thick and hard where she’s soft and yielding.

Ahhh ,” Alina groans, her body rocking in a seismic wave as he strains into her, taking his time. Teasing her.

He brushes a kiss against her cheek. “Ride me.”

His massive hands swallow her hips, steadying her as she leans up — and her own weight impales her on his roused cock, every twitch making her shudder with sympathetic pleasure.

Fuckfuckfuck

She doesn’t mean to look at his face while he’s inside her like this, but she does, and she clenches involuntarily. Aleks’ full lips are parted in lust, his eyes smoldering into her, flicking between her own gaze and the place where their bodies meet.

Her thighs burn as she rises and falls on him, urging him along with little clenches of her inner walls — and she cries out as he sits up long enough to drag her t-shirt off again, tossing it aside. Then he’s holding her again, fucking up into her as she rocks atop him.

“You’re such a pretty little brat, and you fuck like a goddamn porn star,” Aleks groans, coaxing a cry from her lips as he slams deep. One of his hands slides to her belly, his thumb finding her clit and sparking a bliss that verges on too much.

She tries to push his hand away, but he’s insistent, his other hand settling on the small of her back and forcing her against him. “Don’t, it’s too soon—”

“Relax, sweetheart,” Aleks croons. He nuzzles against her, his temple pressed to hers as he caresses her clit in time to the measured stretch, the burn of his raw cock inside her. “Just let me fuck you.”

She’s slick from her arousal and his cum, her body capitulating to his urgent thrusts — and he welcomes her against his chest, finally moving his hand out of the way as she sinks onto him completely again, trusting him with her weight. His muscular arms gather her against him, his beard scratching her cheek as he pounds into her cunt.

Pleasure overwhelms her in a wave, cresting higher as Aleks takes her. So big so big so big her mind chants as he sheathes himself in her to the hilt, and she burrows into the side of his neck, mindless as he transfixes her.

“I’m close,” he rasps. A primal cry twists out of Alina as he bends his legs, pistoning into her harder at this new angle. “Come on my cock, sweetheart … I want another one from you before I let you go home tonight.”

It’s the pain she needs, the violation, the possession — and someone with her voice sobs as ecstasy overtakes her completely.

He fucks her through the crashing orgasm, and she writhes against him, helpless. Just as another aching ridge of euphoria finds Alina, his hips start to stutter beneath her.

“Jesus fuck , love,” Aleks growls, and the wordless cry as he pours himself into her makes her tighten around him again, urging spurt after spurt of searing cum into her womb.

He drives himself into her a few more times, hard , and then stills. His breaths are ragged, but he catches her gently as she tries to push herself off him, coaxing her back to his chest.

“Just lie here with me for a minute.” His breaths are ragged with exertion, but she hesitantly obeys, letting him guide her face back to the hollow of his neck. He strokes her hair again, heaving a throaty sigh, and when she kisses him her lips taste like his salt. “Holy fuck … to think almost didn’t go to that munch.”

“You didn’t?” Alina mumbles blearily, the world around her still a sparkling haze of rapture.

“I didn’t see the point.” His soft laugh shakes her body, and she shivers as he strokes down the length of her spine. “What I might’ve missed out on.”

“Getting laid?”

Solnishka… She yips as he squeezes her arse — and though Aleks’ touch is firm, there’s fondness in it, too. “You.”


Even with Aleks’ hand splayed on her thigh, Alina’s heart sinks all the way back to Os Kervo. After days of waiting to see him, already it’s over — and the idea of waking up without that ahead to look forward to…

He squeezes her knee, gently. Calling her back to him. “Hey, where’d you go?”

“Tomorrow,” she admits.

“Lucky thing about tomorrow,” he says lightly, like he’s pointing out a fun fact, “it is, in fact, a day away.”

Alina juts out her lower lip in a display of petulance that’s only partly feigned. “Wish it was more.” He glances at her, and she adds, “I have to go to Boston.”

“That’s a long trip.” She feels him steal another look at her, hears the concern that’s threading through his deceptively casual voice: “Are you driving?”

“God no — I’m taking the bus. And then the subway.” She sighs, tracing the now-familiar path through the city in her mind. “And then the subway back to the bus. And then back home.”

He grunts in distaste. “And I thought grading midterms sounded arduous.”

Alina shrugs emptily, staring out at the road ahead. Hating the way the town lights are growing nearer, lighting the horizon ahead with a fiery albedo. “I did it all of June, I’m used to it.”

The shadows on his face shift, carving out his features in inky relief as he scowls. “What, the whole month?”

“Yeah, I had some follow-up radiation.” Twenty-five sessions. Twenty-five days that managed to be simultaneously mundane and harrowing. She remembers it, but she doesn’t feel it. They’re like scenes from another person’s life. “So going down for one little office visit’s, like … pshh .”

Aleks’ thumb skims over the side of her thigh in slow, reassuring strokes as the houses huddle closer outside the windows, Os Kervo drawing them into its briny embrace. “Ah, so it’s a follow-up?”

“Yeah, I get scans every three months now to take pictures of my insides. Hot girl shit.”

He nods, jutting out his lower lip as he considers her words. “You’re basically a model.”

“You’ve heard of pinups?” Alina laughs softly, her lips twisting in a macabre grin. “I’m like, a surgical pin-in.”

“Very sexy,” Aleks teases. Then he steals a glance at her, his gaze utterly earnest. You are, though. Incredibly sexy.”

Her cheeks flood with heat. “That coming from you .”

“Seriously, if you have any doubt about how attractive you are, I— we —” He breaks off with a disbelieving laugh, cheeks reddening beneath his beard. “ Twice . That really doesn’t happen. Not in my, uh, personal experience.”

Then they’re there, the familiar lines of the 1950s-style duplex looming through the darkness as Aleks turns the final corner.

“I don’t want to be home.” The words fall out of her mouth before she can catch them, and instantly Alina’s chest collapses in horror. Oh god, he’s going to think I’m clingy or something

Then his hand squeezes her thigh again, just tight enough that she notices. “Yeah, honestly … probably gonna be my least favorite part of today, driving away from you.”

Everything that had fallen within her rises again, borne up by hope. Oh.

Aleks readjusts his hands to turn on the indicator and slows. Pulling to the side of the road and stopping in front of the white house, its dusty red shutters stained black by the night. He shoves the car into park, and Alina’s heart thuds dully as she unbuckles.

This is it.

She turns toward him, and he’s already leaning toward her, cupping her cheek and drawing her lips to his. She pours everything into the kiss, her sex pulsing with spectral desire as he probes her mouth, caressing her tongue with his own.

He presses fevered kisses to her cheek, her nose, her brow — and then they’re hugging each other, his bearded jaw scraping her cheek as she flings her good arm around his neck.

Her . The thorny one, the one who can hardly stand to be touched, embracing this dark man with all her might.

They break apart reluctantly, lips meeting in another slow kiss before they straighten.

“Shit.” Aleks digs in the pocket of his dark pea coat, producing his cell phone. The screen shines up at him like a flashlight, and Alina tries to memorize every detail of his face as he swipes and taps.

She blinks as he suddenly proffers the phone to her, screen up, a new contact card waiting.

Alina Sexy Starkov, ” she reads, then regards him hawkishly. “You do realize my initials would then be ASS .”

“In my defense, you have got a really nice one,” he chuckles, but he’s already deleting it. When he holds it out to her again, only her first name is filled in. “In case Kinkatopia goes down, or that zombie apocalypse actually happens… You know, the usual.”

She types in her number — and a little something extra, but hands it back without saving, in case it’s too presumptuous.

Alina GF? ” Aleks reads.

“Means girlfriend,” she murmurs, embarrassed, but he only offers a dry chuckle.

“Yeah, I know what it means, Alina GF.”

“Just, like, if you want,” she says quickly. “I’m not going to see anyone but you — and if you don’t—”

“I want.”

The two words make her babbling rush quiet. He saves the contact with a few more taps, then tucks his phone back into his pocket, tossing his head to beckon her close. “Now come here, Aleks BF needs you for something.”

She leans into him eagerly, and even though it’s new, her lips find his in a perfect, ravenous kiss. One that’s fast becoming familiar, as though they’ve been like this for lifetimes.

Aleks caresses her cheek, pressing his forehead to hers again in that surprisingly tender way of his. His voice is husky with emotion: “Tonight was…”

He trails off, but she can feel his awed smile. One she can’t help but share. “Yeah.” She kisses his cheek, clumsy with happiness. “Break in my number when you get home so I know you got back safe.”

Aleks grins as she sinks back, his hand lingering at her cheek for one last, affectionate caress. “Thoughtful little brat.”

“I’m not a brat!” Alina insists as she gets out, but she sticks her tongue out at him once the passenger door’s safely shut between them — and the dangerous glint in his eyes goes straight to her aching pussy.

The walkway is snow-covered and slippery, and she takes her time navigating the steps. The car only growls into gear behind her once the front door’s open and she’s turned to glance back.

A wave, and then he’s gone. Only the traces of his scent lingering on her skin.

“What are you doing out there?” Mal calls, and finally she remembers to step past the threshold, tugging the door shut behind her. He’s there in the kitchen, scowling out the front window at the receding tail lights. “That’s not Genya’s car.”

“No, it isn’t.” She shrugs off her jacket and kicks off her boots, hoping that by the time she straightens he will’ve dropped it. If anything, he looks more irritated by her silence.
Well?

Well what?”

“Who is it?” he demands.

Something in his tone makes the nape of her neck thrill with warning again. “Are you babysitting me?”

“No.” He shoves his hands in the pockets of his hoodie, and he even has the audacity to glower at her. “I just think I should know who’s coming and going from my place.”

“So if I get a rideshare I’m supposed to have them drop me up the street?”

“You didn’t say it was a rideshare,” he mutters, stubbornly petulant.

Her heart thumps. “I didn’t realize I had to.”

“I just mean—”

“I’m not running around writing your address on bathroom stalls, Mal, good fucking grief.”

Alina stomps to her room without waiting for a reply — and when she shuts the door, she turns the lock, the old metal rasping loudly enough for anyone still standing in the kitchen to hear.


Aleks BF : Home safe. Mrs Bates says she prefers it when you’re here.

Alina GF : Tell Mrs. Bates I’ll be back soon. At least, I hope I will  

Alina GF : 👀

Aleks BF : You will if I have anything to say about it 😘

Alina GF : 🥰🥰🥰

Aleks BF : Sleep tight, sweetheart. I’ll be thinking of you tomorrow — let me know if there’s anything I can do.

Alina GF : Tysm sexy

Alina GF : (don’t let that go to your head)

Aleks BF : Too late ;)


The hospital looms over the Charles River, close enough to overshadow the winding navy band and the ribbon of multi-laned road that lies between. In the spring and summer tiny sailboats dotted the water, but now it’s cold and quiet beneath a sterling sky.

Not that Alina can see any of it from the exam room, of course. Here it’s the same as any other room, just a cloistered little rectangle with the same few players. An exam table with its stripe of crinkly white paper. Cupboards, all neatly labeled. A scale, beneath a sign insisting that all patients must be weighed on every visit. A computer on a built-in desk, with a vacant rolling chair waiting before it. Two guest chairs. A mirror.

It’s in this last thing that she regards herself as she waits, drumming her heels on the linoleum floor. Squaring her shoulders instead of slumping, trying to act like hauling herself this far hasn’t been exhausting. Halfway done, full of fun.

The doctors are nearly always late — a peril of being treated at a world-class center — but if there’s any chance of making the one o’clock bus back north, she’ll have to be done here and on the Red Line no later than twelve thirty.

Please hurry, I don’t want to be here waiting for the three o’clock bus. As far as she knows the doctors don’t respond to telepathy, but it’s not like the nudge could hurt.

Finally voices mumble on the far side of the closed door, and Alina’s reflection twitches bolt upright in her chair as it swings open. Dr. Grigori enters from the corridor like a lobster boat trailed by the seagulls of lesser doctors, a whole flock of them piling into the room behind him with monogrammed lab coats for feathers and tablets for wings.

“Alina, so good to see you.” The syllables are clipped in his accented voice, a stark contrast to the genuine warmth of his smile.

“Hey, Doctor G.”

He unbuttons his suit jacket and slides into the chair before the computer, bringing up her medical profile with a few clicks. “So let’s take a look at your scans.”

Alina waits, fiddling mindlessly with her cold fingers as she tries to interpret his squint.

“So everything looks good.” He scrolls through the incomprehensible screens, nodding to himself. “No metastases, no sign of local recurrence.”

“Awesome,” Alina replies automatically — and even though she smiles, the grin instinctive, too, she feels nothing. No relief, no happiness. Just hollow.

“Yeah, what I’m seeing is good. We can talk about taking your port out soon.”

She tightens her fingers in her lap to keep them from jumping to her chest. “How soon?”

“Maybe before your next set of scans, if you’re ready?”

Suddenly everyone’s staring at her expectantly, the whole room of them — and there’s an iron cage around her ribs, tightening with every breath.

“Um, maybe…” Her voice sounds tremulous, cracking, and she licks her lips. “Maybe let’s wait until after the next round, just to be sure?”

“No problem,” Dr. Grigori says, completely unfazed as he turns back to her test results — and though Alina doesn’t know exactly why, her heart thuds harder, guts shredding in primal terror like she’s just had a close call.


Alina’s bone-weary by the time the rideshare drops her back at the front door. Yesterday’s snowfall has turned to glassine peaks that crunch under her boots, and even though it’s probably her overwrought mind playing tricks on her, she catches a whiff of alcohol on her skin as she unlocks the front door.

Only, the key turns too easily in the lock, finding no resistance.

Instantly Alina’s alert again — Mal never leaves the front door unlocked when he’s home alone, what the fuck’s wrong? — and she hunches awkwardly as she sidles through the front door.

Surprise!

Alina shouts in alarm, but it’s only Genya, waiting beside the kitchen island with a bottle of champagne and a spray of shiny gold balloons. A matching party hat perches jauntily atop her auburn curls — and somehow she’s even wrangled Mal into one, though he looks resentful of the gilded cone that’s askew on his buzzed head. He looks about as happy as Mrs. Bates.

“What the fuck’s going on?” Alina manages to gasp out through her startled heartbeats.

“Thought it might be nice to celebrate for a change,” Genya offers. Her smile falters as she peers at Alina. “Is everything alright? Results come back clear?”

Alina nods, still scowling in confusion. “What would you have done if they hadn’t been?”

“Then we would’ve been drinking for an altogether different reason,” the redheaded woman tells her smoothly. “Plus it’s Halloween, we’ve got a shit-ton of candy.”

Guess I can’t argue with that.

“Now come on in and wear a stupid hat with us to celebrate,” Genya insists.

Alina rolls her eyes, only half-joking. “If I must.”

“Yes, you must, Poppins.” Genya pops the cork, deftly swerving the bottle over the waiting trio of plastic flutes as the mousse of bubbles gushes out.

“Believe me, you must, ” Mal puts in sourly. “If I have to wear this stupid thing you definitely have to.”

He’s gloomy enough to make Alina chuckle — but for all the fun they have that night, she can’t shake the lingering feeling that in some other branch of the multiverse, another Alina is spending her night very differently, and this sense of relief is payment for her pain.

Chapter Text

“So what’s he like?”

Mal’s snoring away on the couch as Alina and Genya sprawl on the floor in front of the sectional, comfortably ensconced in a nest of knotted fleece blankets and candy wrappers. Something about being tipsy had made Alina’s fingers itch, and she’d grabbed the carpenter’s pencil out of Mal’s toolbelt, followed by a piece of copy paper from the dusty printer tray. Using an oversized book of Paleolithic art as a clipboard, she’s been poking around at the drawing since her roommate fell asleep — and while the side of her hand is now begrimed with graphite, there’s a reasonable semblance of Aleks before her, his dark features emerging from the cloud in ghostly relief.

Alina tears her gaze from the sketch long enough to squint at her friend. “You recognize him?”

“Yeah, of course.” Genya nudges her bad arm — gently enough that the touch only prickles without properly hurting. “And only you have the inside track on Professor McSexyface. I’ve been back here for ages and I hardly have a clue. Which really would be helpful, insofar as I know he’s close with David. So spill.

“He’s…” How the fuck can she encapsulate Aleks in words? She can hardly do it with a pencil — not that the finest oil paints would make it any easier to capture the glint in his fathomless eyes, the mischievous quirk to his brow. “Sweet. Thoughtful. Funny.” The mere memory of his hand on her chin, forcing her to look up at him, makes her burn for him even now. “He’s got … depth. And a lot of light.” Which feels strange to say, in that Nikolai had seemed so bright at first. But that had been a hollow radiance, a golden exterior that belied a worm-eaten heart.

Aleks’ glow is different. Cooler, constant. A light that doesn’t chase the darkness away but threads through it.

“And the sex is…?” Genya trails off, waggling her eyebrows suggestively.

So good,” Alina sighs. “Like, seriously, mind-blowingly, what-have-I-been-doing-with-my-life-until-now good.”

“Fuck yeah, woman!” Genya offers her fist, and Alina stops fussing with the drawing of Aleks long enough to pound it with her own. “Get that good dique.”

His raw cock straining in my cunt, cradling me to his chest as he devastates me… Alina swallows hard as her pussy cramps with need. “The best dique I’ve had in a long time. Probably ever.

“And that’s pure vanilla — assuming you were good kiddos and didn’t play on your first unchaperoned date,” Genya adds with a sloppy-stern look.

Unchaperoned god, Gen…” Alina snorts.

“Just imagine how good things could be once you really start exploring,” the redhead slurs insistently. She pats Alina’s knee. “Oh the places you’ll go, my love…”

Dark places. Secret ones, full of secret desires that would make even a Kwisatz Haderach blush.

Exhausted as Alina is when she finally falls into bed that night — having sent Mal to bed and installed a very sleepy Genya in his former place on the couch — she knows exactly where she wishes she could go: to a forest hollow that seems to exist outside time, where dark-eyed Professor Morozova and his rope collection are surely waiting.


Aleks BF : When can I see you again?

Alina GF : Name a time — I don’t exactly have a rip-roaring schedule 🙃

Aleks BF : How’s tomorrow night?

Alina GF : …How’s tonight? 👀

Aleks BF : Work owns me tonight, I’m afraid :/

Alina GF : boo

Aleks BF : Will Saturday be soon enough for my thirsty little brat?

Alina GF : omg I’M NOT A BRAT!!

Aleks BF : 🤣🤣

Two laughing face emojis. Not just one. 

It’s too much to be borne.

Thank fuck it’s midday, and she’s alone in the apartment, her laptop resurrected from its own brush with death and chattering away on its milk crate. Still, she locks her bedroom door before resettling herself on the bed and wriggling out of her sweater, draping the sleeve of the burgundy fabric over her tits in what she can only hope is a seductive pose.

She snaps ten pictures before selecting one that’s good enough — and she sends it accompanied by the words, Bratty enough for you?

Electric heaters notwithstanding, the cool air in her bedroom makes her hurry back into the sweater’s warm embrace, and she tries to focus her attention on the television as she waits.

It doesn’t take long.

Aleks BF : God yes

Alina GF : So now that you know I won’t break from taking your cock, what do you want to do to me? ;)

She waits impatiently as the seconds slip past. At least on Kinkatopia chat I could see if he was typing.

Aleks BF : Tie you up, spank you for your insolence, and fuck you — in that order.

Aleks BF : You only get to take my cum if you take your punishment like a good girl.

“Fuck,” Alina hisses, her cunt throbbing hungrily. He’s so … arrogant. And it’s curiously hot.

Alina GF : I only GET to take your cum??

Aleks BF : Now that I know you like being pumped full of it, yes 😏

Alina GF : So you’re using my sluttiness to your advantage, Professor?

Aleks BF : Merely doing my homework on you, Miss Starkov.

A dark image pops into the chat feed — and Alina rotates her phone, shaking it to urge the sticky gyros along.

It’s a screenshot of her fetish list from Kinkatopia, bedecked with scribbled red circles that highlight three tagged phrases.

Creampie. Bare bottom spanking. Impact play.

“Shit,” Alina breathes, shivering as excitement lances through her. But even as delight crests in her, so does a dark worry. One she’s barely been able to acknowledge until now.

What if I can’t do it?

She wants to, that’s not in doubt. Being tied up in my knots. Yes, she’d give anything to do that with him — but maybe that was just flirting, and she’s too broken for it.

Alina types slowly, her ragged pulse unsettling her already-shaky fingers.

Alina GF : With my arm being like it is, can you actually tie me up? Like … is it safe?

She chews her thumbnail as she waits, a mindless eternity of limbo.

Aleks BF : Nothing in kink is ever fully safe, I’m sure you know that. But the short answer is that within reason, yes.

She blinks in surprise.

Yes.

Aleks BF : I won’t put you in any position that’s uncomfortable, and we’ll need to check in with each other a lot to make sure you’re still feeling all right, but we can start with something simple.

Aleks BF : I had this in mind.

The link he sends is to a tutorial, one that looks surprisingly straightforward. By the final picture of the series, the model’s wrists are bound together, four loops of rope lined around each wrist like bangles, the trailing line leading away from loops that run perpendicular around the manacles.

Aleks BF : The Lark’s Head Double Column is designed to distribute tension so it doesn’t pull in any one place — though with what you’ve been through, I wouldn’t be tugging on the tail, per se. Just using the rope to keep your wrists together.

Aleks BF : Does that sound like something you’d be interested in trying?

Alina debates deleting the words as she finishes swiping and correcting them — but then she presses Send, and it’s too late to take it back as her message pops up to join the others.

Alina GF : I wish you knew how wet I was right now just thinking about it.

Aleks BF : Fuck

Aleks BF : If I can stop myself from fucking you as soon as you set foot in my house, it’ll be a bloody miracle.

She giggles, aching for him, and time passes all the slower for it.


This time she knows the familiar car as it slows before the old Os Kervo courthouse — and Aleks doesn’t just park, he actually gets out, peacoat flaring in the wind. With a few long strides he’s beside her, and then Alina’s swept up in his arms, the warm, spiced scent of his body filling her nose as his lips claim hers.

Aleks… She sinks into him, knotting her fingers in his sweater as his tongue fills her mouth, his warm breaths snarling against her cheek. He cradles her head, her pink hat sliding back as he nuzzles into her.

Being wanted. It’s such a strange, intangible thing, yet she can feel it in his touch — reverent and ravenous, like he can’t get enough of her.

Finally she nudges him back. Just a little, enough to remind him of the clawing wind.

“Right.” He kisses the tip of her nose, then her forehead before letting her slip away. “Let’s get going.”

He opens the passenger door for her, taking her hand as he ushers her inside. “Such manners, ” Alina laughs.

Aleks bends close as she settles herself in the seat. “All the better to defile you, my dear.” He flashes her that devilishly charming grin, and just a few moments later he’s sitting beside her in the driver’s seat, buckling himself in as she does the same. “Are you ready, sweetheart?”

She nods — and with another smile they’re pulling away, Os Kervo already forgotten in their wake.


Miraculously, they manage to keep their hands away from any danger zones as Aleks drives them to his home again, his fingers woven through her good ones, their hands resting on her thigh. His voice is pleasant, warm as they chat about Deadpool, planes of D&D worlds, multiverse theory, the conversation flowing like they’ve known each other for years. Indeed, the only indication that there’s anything else on his mind is the way his thumb scrawls distracted circles on her leggings.

His huge hand reclaims hers walking to the basement door, and he leads her up to the main storey of the house. Once the woodstove’s heat is surrounding them the dark man turns back, pulling her into his embrace again.

They stumble against each other, kicking out of their boots in turn, and then Aleks’s hands are at her shoulders, dragging her jacket and the strap of her bag away, letting them fall to the floor. Alina tugs at his, probably hindering more than helping — and once the black wool drops away he gathers her to him, lifting her up on her toes as he yanks her close.

Their kiss is a brutal hurricane of teeth and tongues, and she sucks on his lower lip until he groans, the hand at the small of her back sliding down to claim her arse. Alina’s core throbs at his possessive touch, and they crash against the loveseat, the cushioned back nudging against her thighs.

She gasps as the hand that was cradling her head moves to her sweater, and Aleks deftly thumbs her cardigan open. His hand settles on her breast, squeezing gently, fondling her through the thin cotton tank.

The dark-eyed man kisses a soft, wet line to the hollow of her neck, and his words buzz against her skin. “Do you want sex, or do you want kinky sex, Alina?"

“You’re a sadist for making me choose.” She runs her hand over his bearded cheek, clinging to him as his hips nudge into hers. Is that a belt buckle, or is he already hard? “What do you want, Aleks?”

His fingers tighten on the sensitive swell, finding her nipple and tweaking it hard enough to make her gasp. “I want to know what you were thinking, sending me that incredibly provocative photograph.” He draws back, black eyes smoldering into her as he traces the column of her neck with his forefinger, the touch feather-soft. “Were you trying to get yourself in trouble, little brat?”

“Mayyybe,” Alina breathes guiltily, the word catching as he pushes his hips into hers again.

“You are so — bloody — distracting .” Aleks punctuates each of the last three words with lingering kisses pressed to her neck, her scarred collarbone, the curve of her breast.

“I’d say I was sorry,” she murmurs, “but—”

“—you’re enjoying the consequences too much.” He chuckles, the low, melodic sound going right through her. “I’m well aware.” He draws back far enough to regard her, lifting his chin as he resettles his askew glasses on the bridge of his nose. “Time for you to choose.”

Sex or kinky sex . She scrunches up her face in an exaggerated pout as she thinks. Part of her is too damn impatient to wait, and screams at her to keep ripping his clothes off until they’re naked together, rutting on the couch like desperate beasts. But the memory of the rainbow ropes, the austere way he handled them, makes her hesitate.

I’m sure I’m gonna hate myself for this… “Kinky sex,” she tells him.

“Excellent choice.” Disappointment roars louder as he steps back, Picard maneuvering the wrinkles out of his sweater before extending a hand to her. His charcoal eyes dance with something that looks suspiciously like delight. “This way.”

Alina slips her fingers into his and he leads her upstairs, not releasing her until they’re standing in his bloodred bedroom, the cubicles of rope there before them.

He nods to the neat spectrum. “Choose your color.”

Her heart flutters in her chest like a caged bird as she considers each in turn. So many choices. Surely he won’t intuit anything from her choice, but she lets her hand linger on the lip of the rectangle that calls to her, filled with deep crimson bundles. “This one.”

“Perfect.” He nods to the bed, unnervingly calm. “Take a seat.”

Alina perches on the edge of the black comforter, and when Aleks joins her, he’s carrying the red rope and a pair of bent scissors, the tips blunted. He sets both on the bed beside her, then holds out his hands, reaching for her but not touching. “May I touch your arm?”

She nods and slips out of her cardigan, holding her injured arm out to him. He takes it gingerly, and she twitches as he gently skims his hand over her skin.

“Does this hurt?” he asks, stopping at her fidgeting movement.

Alina shakes her head. “It feels like … if you sit wrong and your leg falls asleep. Cold, pins and needles.” She traces a triangle over her elbow with her good hand. “I can’t feel anything at all here.”

He indicates the upper part of her bicep, fingertips hovering over her skin without making contact. “There are some very important nerves here, radial and ulnar—”

“Yeah,” she puts in quickly. Wow, he actually knows what he’s doing. “My radial nerve is the one that’s damaged.”

“So we’ll stay clear of anything higher than here,” Aleks says, indicating just below her elbow. He rests his palm on her forearm. “How does this feel?”

“All right. Warm.” She watches him as he turns her arm over in his hands, gently examining her body, helping her extend her wrist as her fingers curl against his. “You’re very … conscientious.”

“I damn well better be,” Aleks says quietly. “You’re trusting me with your safety, and I am very aware of what a precious responsibility that is. And speaking of safety…”

He taps the bent scissors with his free hand.

“For my clothes?”

“For the rope. If anything happens, say, you have a panic attack or something we don’t anticipate.” He cups her cheek, lifting her face until his gaze reclaims hers, burning with insistence. “No rope is ever more important than you, Alina. It’s all replaceable. You aren’t.”

Fuck. Her lips pop open and she drags in a breath, suddenly realizing that for a few long moments she’d forgotten to breathe.

“I’d like to try something.” Aleks picks up the bundle of rope, and she nods, giving him tacit permission as her heart thumps.

He releases her long enough to straighten out the crimson rope, bending it double and winding it around her arm — first one way and then the other, looping it through itself. The silken line wraps around her like a sanguine snake, hissing to and fro over her skin until it’s a cuff, locked in place by a knot that looks like a triskelion.

“This is called a Lark’s Head single column.” Parallel lines of red rope flow away from the knot and into Aleks’ hand. He slides a finger between the lines and her skin, resettling the rope before withdrawing. It’s like a collar for her wrist — and she laughs in wonder as he gives the trailing lines a gentle tug. Just enough that there’s soft pressure. He’s showing me that I can’t get away. “How does this feel?”

Her stomach lifts like she’s going over the rise of some invisible roller coaster, on the verge of plunging away into the unknown. Only Aleks and his rope are keeping her safe. “Like I’m not going anywhere, but in a good way.”

His eyes probe her, black with concern. “Does it hurt?”

“Nope.” It doesn’t feel any different than a cuff of a sweater, even if her hand still hangs beyond it, mostly limp.

“So it’ll be like this” —Aleks takes her other hand, the good one, drawing it forward to mirror the bad— “and I’ll be minding the color and temperature of your skin to make sure I’m not cutting off blood flow.” He strokes her hands. Not that she needs the reassurance, but she welcomes it all the same. “How does that sound?”

“Good,” Alina murmurs, distracted as her cunt cramps with lust.

He gazes at her for a long moment, his brow furrowing with concern. “You’re sure about this? Like, if you’re doing this just because you think I want it—”

I want this,” Alina cuts in — and her hands find their way into his bigger ones, squeezing insistently. “It’s something I’ve always been curious about, and, well … you seem to know what you’re doing.”

Aleks lifts the red ropes, looping them around the back of his neck, guiding her bad arm up around his shoulders as he moves close. His hand warms her cheek as he nudges between her knees, and then she’s kissing him — gently at first, then fiercely, licking into his mouth as he leans into her.

Just as her sex throbs with need again he steps back. “Enough. This comes off, then your clothes.”

Pale disappointment washes through her as he unties the rope cuff, but she eagerly strips out of her shirt, then her leggings. “All of them?”

Aleks snaps the waistband of her black panties as she wriggles out of her socks. “Everything but these.”

She plants her good hand on her hip, glowering at him in mock disapproval as he yanks off his sweater and tosses it aside in a crumpled heap. The simple black t-shirt and jeans seems to be his style — and the clothes fit him perfectly, showing off the chiseled muscles of his arms, the lean cut of his torso. “But you’re just taking off your sweater? How is that fair?”

Aleks prowls toward her, the haughty tilt to his head making her shiver with anticipation. His hands swallow her waist, twin flames that skate up her back to linger at the clasp of her bra. “It isn’t.”

Alina gazes up at him, startled into an openmouthed grin as the lace band springs free about her ribs, and he drags the whole thing off her.

“Do you have a problem with that?” he asks delicately as he drops her bra on top of his sweater.

“Merely making an observation.” And clearly Aleks is doing some observing of his own as his obsidian eyes rove over her body, lingering on her hips, her breasts, his tongue flicking over his full lips as he regards her. “Better than the picture I sent you?” she asks primly.

“Infinitely.” He blinks, remembering himself, and his face hardens with purpose. “But that photo did cause me a bit of consternation.”

“We can’t have that,” she murmurs, trying to be the picture of innocence.

“When I’m at school? Certainly not.” He lays the doubled-over ropes on her good shoulder, and they trail against the curve of her breast, tickling her vulnerable skin. He studies her coolly. “In your estimation, Miss Starkov, what would be an appropriate number of spanks to repay me for that discomfort you caused?”

Alina purses her lips, considering his question as she vainly tries to tune out the sensation of the rope against her skin. It’s heavy and light, ticklish and rasping. “Twenty.”

“Good god, you’re a little monster,” Aleks chuckles, then his expression turns stern again. “ Ten. Five on each cheek.”

“Fine,” Alina sighs.

“Just for that—” His arm snakes about her waist, and he pulls her to him roughly, her mostly-naked body colliding with his clothed one. She cries out as he fondles her breasts, but his mouth smothers the sound as he reclaims her in a savage kiss.

A growl rumbles through his chest, and his hand slides to her arse, yanking her hips up to meet his as he pins her against the edge of the mattress.

He is hard, almost painfully so as he nudges into her. She cants her hips to meet him, and they both shudder as they find each other through his jeans.

“Get up on my bed,” Aleks rasps into her burning lips. “Now.”

She scrambles up awkwardly, sitting as she did before — but Aleks is entirely changed. The expression of tender concern swept away, his angular features drawn with cruel focus as he wraps the ropes around her wrists, lashing about her quickly.

Within moments she’s his prisoner, the red ropes binding her and locked with a secure knot. Aleks holds the tether like a demon god, keeping the dual lines taut as he runs his finger between the lines on her skin, evening out the soft manacles.

“Are you comfortable using the stoplight system?” he asks, the sneering mask slipping.

It’s BDSM 101. Green for go, yellow for pause and check in, red for stop.

“Green,” Alina says softly.

“Good girl,” Aleks murmurs — and if her panties hadn’t already been sticking to her pussy, surely those two words would’ve made her flood herself.

He coaxes her into lying back on the bed, drawing her bound wrists up over her head and settling them just below his pillow. “How does this feel?”

Her nipples are aching points in the chill air, her skin stippling with commingled desire and dread … but she feels alive . Bared like Andromeda, ready for whatever her personal silver-streaked monster has in store. “Green.”

“Alina Starkov,” Aleks croons as his free hand roves over the plane of her belly. She trembles as he moves higher, claiming her breasts and kneading them in turn, preening over his prize. “You have no idea what you are.”

“What am I?” she gasps as his fingertips trace the waistband of her panties, the pressure tantalizing.

“Tonight?” The dark man chuckles, the sound cold enough to freeze her blood. “You’re mine.”

Without warning he slides his arm under her thighs, and Alina shrieks with surprise as he flips her onto her stomach. 

“Arse in the air. Let’s go.”

“How are you going to spank me with my panties still on?” she grumbles as she wriggles up onto her knees. He’s still using the rope cuffs to pin her hands to the bed, and she can only move awkwardly, any hope of grace slipping through her helpless fingers.

“That’s for me to worry about,” Aleks snaps — and the harsh command in his voice makes her instinctively clamp her thighs together.

Fuck!  

“Yes, sir,” Alina mumbles, ducking her head to hide her sudden grin.

Aleks strokes her from the curve of her arse from the nape of her neck, deliberately lazy. Torturing her. “I like the sound of that way too much,” he sighs as he reaches underneath her, cupping her breasts and then moving lower.

“Me calling you sir? ” she grits out as he slips his forefinger under the waistband of her knickers, stroking her mound only once before retreating.

“Yes, Alina. That exactly.”

She yelps as his hand settles on her arse again, yanking the soft cotton up into the crack of her arse and baring the twin globes of her rump.

“You have such a nice ass,” Aleks purrs. His glasses flash with light as he admires her, towering over her like an inscrutable shadow. “I’m going to enjoy it very much right now.”

Pain explodes in the left side of her arse, the air forced from Alina’s lungs in a wordless “ Guh! ” as his first strike lands. It’s a proper spank, the sweet agony unfurling through her flesh as her body surges in instinctive rebellion.

“What color?” Aleks demands, caressing the spot he just struck with unbearable tenderness.

“Green,” Alina groans, nudging into his touch, savoring the perilous heat.

“Ahh.” He’s pleased — she can hear it in his voice, the way the word sighs out on a tide of pleasure. “Then let’s give it one to match.”

Alina yelps as he spanks the other side of her arse, the stinging symmetry utter perfection.

“I want you to count for me,” Aleks says, rubbing her arse until she whimpers with need. “Surely even a brat like you can count to ten.”

So condescending… It’s perverse, loving this side of him so much. He’s so precise, so imperious, it’s making her coil tight with desire.

“Three,” Alina gasps as the pain in her left cheek redoubles, the shockwave stirring something far deeper than her skin.

“You have a very strong reaction to that, don’t you?” He gropes her generous curve, lingering before the sweet touch is replaced by iron.

“Four.” The word twists out into a moan as Aleks rakes his fingernails over the twin patches of fire, stirring the smoldering coals in her nerves.

“But what sort of reaction is it?” he murmurs, as though he’s talking to himself. Alina rears up as he hooks the crotch of her panties aside, but the rope is still pinning her bound wrists to his bed — and in the next instant he’s palming her pussy, stroking through her folds and rubbing her clit in wanton circles. “Fuck, you’re soaked .”

“You finally noticed?” she blurts out, the words jagged, overwrought as he pushes against her and splays her open.

Aleks drags one fingertip through her wet slit, and then her arse is burning again, the slap of flesh striking flesh deafening in the close space. “Don’t you dare take that tone with me, young lady.”

“F-Five,” Alina gasps out — but in a flare of insolence she adds, “Sorry, Daddy.”

“You little brat.”

Another spank. Another roar of pain in her ass, the force of it making her tremble with delight. “Six.”

“And you thought you could take twenty.” He sounds amused — and pitiless. Why is this so fucking hot?

“I can,” Alina growls, wincing at his next searing blow. “Seven.”

“Listen to your voice. It’s shaking.” Her spine bows as he strokes up the length of her back again, soothing her devastated skin with velvet benevolence. “Just like the rest of you.”

His fingers leave wet trails over the curve of her rump. “Eight,” she hisses, writhing amid the glorious torment. “ Fuck.”

“Give me a color, Alina.”

“Green,” she seethes, so forcefully that Aleks chuckles.

“So bloody wanton. Your ass was made for this.” As though to emphasize his words he grabs a handful of her flesh, massaging her stinging rump until she mewls.

Only then does he release her — and the next blow comes crashing down.

Nine, ” Alina whispers, her fingers twisting into the comforter.

“One more, princess,” Aleks soothes, but then his voice turns mocking again, disdain dripping from every syllable. “Think you can take it?”

Alina drags in a shuddering breath, bracing for what’s to come. “Yes, sir.”

“There they are,” he murmurs.

She doesn’t dare look up at him, but her forehead wrinkles anyway. “What?”

“Your manners.”

The final spank is the hardest one yet, a solar flare of pain that makes her shriek the word, “ Ten! ” as she collapses on the bed, overtaxed thighs refusing to hold her up a moment longer.

“Oh there there now, poor bratty princess.” She whines as Aleks rubs her miserable arse, thoroughly pleased with himself. “Hurt, didn’t it?”

“Yeah.”

Yeah, ” he echoes derisively, laughing as she grumbles. “And your wrists?”

She wiggles her fingers experimentally, savoring the too-brief moments of him touching her to check — but for how securely she’s bound, it’s not cutting off circulation. “Still green.”

“Excellent.” Aleks rolls her onto her back. “Let’s see how much you liked it.”

He shoves his hand down the front of her panties, gasping as he finds her pussy so drenched that there’s barely any friction. “ Jesus, Alina…”

“I liked it a lot, alright?” she mumbles, face reddening to match her burning arse.

“Clearly.” He guides her bound hands down to rest on her stomach. “Lie here like this.”

“Yes, sir.” 

She lifts her hips, helping him as he pulls her panties down and tosses them aside. Then he taps her ankle. “Spread your legs, pet.”

Alina obeys wordlessly, and Aleks climbs up on the bed between her thighs, careful not to disturb her supine body. 

She doesn’t realize what he means to do until he sinks back, wrapping his arms around her legs and drawing them over his broad shoulders. Somehow he’s still holding the red rope leash, pinning it to her lower abdomen with a fisted hand — and he unhooks his glasses, nudging them into her fingers. “Hold onto these for me, sweetheart.”

His beard abrades her inner thigh as he teases her with a series of wet, slow kisses, and her body goes whip-taut as his breath heats her dripping crevice.

Nikolai never did this. Ever . And that was fine with her — it always seemed so undignified. Not worth the trouble, especially considering the way he boasted about his supposed prowess in that arena.

She tugs at the rope as Aleks licks into her, but his hand that’s anchoring her doesn’t even budge. A whimper twists out of her throat as he scrawls a wet ribbon through her crux, the flat of his tongue dragging against her clit.

Fuck ,” Alina cries as pleasure thrums through her, the bliss as inescapable as Aleks’s ropes.

“Shh.” He presses a kiss into her mound. “Relax, love.”

“I don’t want to come like this,” she wails, struggling — but his fingers tighten on her thighs, and his icy laugh makes her settle.

“Trust me, you won’t.”

She screws her eyes shut, but he takes his time, seemingly ignoring her. It’s not some messy frat boy head; he devours her slowly, purposefully, alternately sucking on her clit and lapping at her wet hole. Maybe it’s the rope’s unyielding grip on her wrists, distracting her from the particulars, but his primal attention to Alina kindles a new kind of rapture in her body. She’s pinned beneath him as he feasts on her, growling into her cunt as he works her with his tongue.

He loves it.

That’s the only possible explanation. He’s in full control, not just of himself but Alina, her body writhing beneath him like a horny marionette.

“N-No,” she gasps out as the edge rises, and he withdraws, kissing the swell of her pussy, her thighs, his beard scraping her tender skin.

Then he starts again. Nuzzling into her as she cries out, sucking her arousal from her skin, drinking from her pussy like she’s a river nymph and her cunt is his spring.

“Fucking bastard,” she sobs, nearly overcome. “You kn-know just what you’re doing, don’t you?”

“Edging you?” His whiff of laughter gusts against her bared pussy, making her squirm. “Of course. Tonight your orgasms are going to be on my cock, because I am a greedy man, and I want you to take all of me.” His nose traces a mocking circle around her vulva. “You might not be a trained submissive, but you’re strong. Stronger than you know.”

He nudges her to the brink one more time — and she’s there in moments, toes curling in the air just as he draws back, leaving her wanting. Her muscles go slack as he resettles her bare legs on the quilt, and she dares to open her eyes just in time to see Aleks pulling off his t-shirt, wiping his face with it before throwing it on the floor with the rest.

“Thank you for looking after these.” He’s like a living shadow, gently tugging his glasses out of her hands and setting them on his bedside table, lifting her bound hands over her head again. Denim grinds against her sex as he covers her body with his own, and his lips seal against hers, more ravenous for having tasted her there.

Aleks moves lower, still pinning her wrists over her head with the rope leash, kissing his way down to her breasts and plumping her nipples between his lips. He tugs the hardened buds between his teeth, suckling at her — and Alina heaves weeping breaths as lifts his hips away, leaving her wanting.

“Please,” she begs as he prints a kiss on her stomach. “Oh fuck— Aleks, I need you—”

“Not calling me Daddy now, are you?” he asks dryly as he returns to loom over her — and Alina glares up at him, nearly out of her mind with need.

“Fuck me, Daddy,” she blurts out.

Shit, did I just say that?

It’s too late to take it back — and he stares down at her for an eternal moment, tendons popping in his temples as he grits his jaw.

“You want Daddy to fuck you?” he growls. Then his arm is around her, dragging her up to sit on his pillows, propping her against the smooth, cool wooden headboard. He holds her bound hands in the space between their bodies. “Then you’d better open Daddy’s pants.”

She’s no more awkward for being bound. Her hand stumbles on the button, and she shivers at the rasping drag of the zipper, but it’s only from the way every cell is burning, screaming for him. 

Aleks’s black boxer briefs are swollen, and she glances up at him. His eyes sparkle as he nods. “Take out Daddy’s cock.”

He tilts his hips, helping her along as she pushes his waistband down, and he hisses softly as his erection springs free.

“Big, isn’t it?” Alina nods, mouth watering for a taste of him, but he holds her chin as she whimpers petulantly. His eyes are ink-dark with need, and he throbs, thickening in her fingers as she gives him a whisper-soft pump. “Do you want Daddy’s big cock inside you?”

She nods, lost for words — but his gaze turns flinty, and his fingers tighten on her jaw.

“Say it. Out loud, please, Alina.”

It’s so perverse. So wrong. But right now she’d do anything for release from this ardent misery. For him to be the one to release her.

“Yes, Daddy,” she breathes. “I want your big cock inside me. Please.”

Fuck .” The red ropes slip through Aleks’ fingers, and his eyes flash with lust as he slides his hands under her arse, lifting her with a single grunting movement. The smooth wooden headboard is freezing against her back, but it’s nothing; he’s cradling her, pinning her to it. He ducks under her bound arms, settling them around his neck — and then his mouth angles over hers.

His kiss steals the breath from Alina’s lungs, and she moans into his lips as the blunt tip of his cock sinks into her, stretching her cunt as he thrusts.

Her body coils at his harsh intrusion, but he only holds her there on the verge of pleasure and pain, refusing to retreat.

“How are you so fucking wet for me, princess?” he rasps, brushing another distracted kiss against her lips as he wrenches deeper into her core. “Tell me.”

“Because I want you, Daddy.” It’s so fucked up, but the word makes him throb in her belly. She leans up to kiss him, sucking on his lower lip and tasting her own flavor mingling with his. He tastes perfect. “I want you to hurt me with your cock.”

He withdraws a few inches and slams into her — once, twice, then quickening. Finding a punishing rhythm as he ravages her. “Give me a color, babygirl.”

“Green,” Alina whimpers. “ So fucking green.”

She writhes in his arms, utterly at his mercy as he thrusts harder, deeper. Holy fucking shit

“Do you know how hard it’s been holding myself back long enough to punish you?” Aleks’s teeth graze her throat as he transfixes her, his movements sharp. Brutal. “ Do you, Alina?”

She shakes her head numbly, lost to the ecstatic skeins of light that are pulling tight in along her spine. Nikolai never wanted me this much. “Tell me.”

“You punish me when I can’t fuck you straightaway.” His fingers are steel, tight enough to leave bruises as he pounds into her, and he nips her jaw hungrily. “I would’ve had you on the loveseat, the kitchen counter, the living room floor—”

“Fuck me harder, Daddy,” Alina begs. “ Please.

He obliges, ravishing her with grim strokes that leave her gasping. He’s rock-hard in her cunt, greased by her arousal as he pistons deep. Each pump of his hot length brings her closer to the brink, his ridges rubbing something deep inside that makes her clench.

“Daddy’s got a big load for you, little brat.” His panting breaths skim over her pebbled skin, and her lower back aches as he fucks her into the headboard. “Turns out I quite like you being naughty.”

She tilts her hips to meet him, tightening her pussy as he drives into her again and again. It’s like he’s trying to not just claim her, but ruin her for anyone else. Fuck, it might actually be working.

“Alina…” 

The way he breathes her name is enough to send goosebumps racing down the nape of her neck, and she groans wordlessly. I’m so close…

His huge body goes rigid, his hips stuttering as he twitches in her cunt. “My little brat … my Alinochka…”

“Come inside me, Daddy,” she pleads softly, nearly lost. She’s almost entirely at his mercy, but she rocks her hips to meet his, eager for every inch of him. “Use my body to get yourself off.”

He comes with a wordless shout, plunging into her hard, straining deep as his load floods her. Alina’s pussy clenches in a blissful tattoo of release, the orgasm urging another throaty groan from Aleks’ lips — and he grinds into her, using her cunt to wring every drop of cum from his body.

This is what perfection feels like.

She’s boneless in his arms, still impaled on him as he sinks back, balancing her carefully on his lap. He ducks out of the loop of her bound arms and loosens the knots, slipping the rope off her in sinuous strokes.

Then it’s gone, cast aside like their shed clothes. He touches her hands, squeezing her fingers. “Any pins and needles?”

“No more than usual,” Alina pants. Her hair is sticking to her forehead and her skin is wet with perspiration — but Aleks doesn’t seem to notice. He simply gathers her up, bringing her with him as he scoots down and lies back on the bed.

“No.” He catches her hips as she tries to slide off him, caging her against his chest with an implacable arm. “Stay here.”

“I’m not squishing you?” 

Aleks huffs out a laugh. “No, love. Not a bit.”

Love. It’s just an endearment, a silly word, but part of Alina is shamefully delighted to hear it — and she slowly relaxes against the plane of his bare chest, surprised at how comfortable it is being wrapped up in him.

“Like this.” His hand traces a blistering line down her back, and she moans as his softening cock twitches in her belly. “Just like this.”

Chapter Text

“Let me see,” Aleks says, his eyes dropping to her hips as she pads back into his bedroom.

Alina turns, showing off her arse as she bends to retrieve her soaked panties and drag them back on. Should’ve brought a spare pair. “Hardly left a mark.”

His quartz eyes glitter behind his glasses, like she’s thrown down an intangible gauntlet. And maybe she has. “I’ll have to try harder next time.”

“Oh, next time,” she murmurs, tracing a finger over one of the fading pink patches on her hindquarters.

“Don’t start something you can’t finish.” His voice is soft, dangerous — and her aching cunt responds with a flutter that makes her knees quake. “Hands?”

She holds them out for his inspection, and the dark man turns her wrists over, examining her gently. “Does anything hurt or feel different?”

Alina shakes her head. “It seems I’ve survived your torture chamber.”

“Oh sweetheart, if you think that was torture,” he chuckles ominously before giving her arse a fond swat. “Come on, get dressed before you get both of us in trouble.”

She obeys, if somewhat grudgingly, and trails him back down to the living room, perching on the loveseat as Aleks retrieves a pitcher from his refrigerator and pours two glasses.

“Fuck, it’s cold down here,” he grouses, moving to the woodstove and shaking his head at her. “You are clearly a terrible influence, Miss Starkov.”

“That’s me, renowned influencer,” Alina agrees, and his warm laugh makes her wrap her arms around her chest, like something warm and golden is going to explode out of her and fill the cottage.

He stokes the fire and returns bearing the glasses, holding out one to her. “Water.”

“Oh, perfect ,” she gushes, draining half before he sits down on the other end of the loveseat. She hadn’t realized how parched she was until he offered it to her, but now she’s like a woman who’s just stumbled out of the desert. “Thank you.”

“Of course.” Aleks’ depthless eyes narrow as he takes a pull from his own glass. “What are you doing all the way over there?”

“Hmm?”

He takes another deep drink, then leans forward, setting the glass on the floor. When he straightens he turns and scoops her up, heaving her closer so that her legs are draped over his lap. His arm curls around her back, but still he watches her strangely, as if she’s an equation that doesn’t quite tally. “When did you turn to wood?”

“I’m not wood,” Alina protests, stung — but suddenly she’s aware of the way she’s sitting bolt upright, both hands wrapped around the glass the best she can. Oh.

“If you were any more stiff, I’d be calling a mortuary.”

“Funny you should say that, I actually have one on speed dial,” she mutters as her cheeks fill with a mortified heat.

He caresses her back, the touch strangely insistent as he studies her. “What is it?”

“I don’t usually, uh, cuddle,” Alina admits, hating the stiffness in her voice, her body as the truth blunders out.

This is the point where he’ll say something — that something’s wrong with her, that she’s a freak. Thorny . That’s the word Mal always uses. 

Aleks blinks at her in that owlish way of his, and his hand stops dead. “Oh.”

“Just … like … you don’t have to go out of your way to look after me, I’m all right,” she babbles, as a voice in her head shrieks you’ve already weirded him out enough, STOP TALKING!

“Are you trying to tell me you don’t need aftercare?” Aleks gazes down at her, baffled. “Alina…”

“I’m really fine,” she insists, but even to her own ears the words sound like a feeble excuse. She can feel her demons reaching up out of the oubliette where she banished them long ago. 

Hope. Yearning. Love. Luxuries that someone who was utterly alone couldn’t afford. If she cracks the door, will they all come tumbling out?

“How long has it been since someone touched you like this?” His voice is hoarse, and he strokes her arm, the side of her leg. Not demanding but reassuring. “Like, properly held you?”

“I, um…” She shrugs as her face reddens. “I dunno.”

Alina’s grateful for the glass as his dark eyes search her — but then he plucks it out of her hands, setting it on the floor along with his own. Then his arms enfold her, and he crushes her against his chest.

“You don’t have to,” she mutters stubbornly into the side of his neck. He’s a living woodstove, radiating heat and his delicious scent.

“If you don’t want me to—”

“No.” 

He’s just starting to pull back, but the word stops him. 

“It’s … all right,” Alina admits awkwardly, her pulse howling in her ears as she blushes. She doesn’t dare lift her gaze to meet his, but she plucks at his shirt. Why are words so hard? “I guess. I mean— I just don’t want to be a bother.”

“Alina, you are anything but a bother.” In her peripheral vision, his lips curve. “Besides, I actually need this.”

That makes her look Aleks in the eye — but there’s no trace of mocking. Just the same brittle vulnerability that’s stolen through her, too. “You do?”

“Top drop is very real, sweetheart.” He peers down at her. “Does that make it easier for you, knowing that this is something I want and need after playing together?”

Alina nods, hope sneaking out of its prison long enough to radiate through her as Aleks settles her in his lap.

“That’s better,” he sighs, tucking her head into the hollow of his shoulder.

Being snuggled into him like this, he can’t capture her in that onyx stare — and it emboldens her. “So, er, are we going to talk about the whole Daddy thing?”

“It’s … new,” Aleks admits after a moment, but his arms tighten around her. “All I can say right now is that I don’t hate it, when it comes from you.”

She cringes inwardly, but there’s no retreating from his embrace. “I’m sorry, I don’t know why it popped out like that— It’s not an age thing, or a father-type-issue, I swear—”

“It’s fine, pet. You’re willing to explore new things … I am, too.”

“Oh.” Alina peeks up at him now, finally, and he’s already gazing down at her, plush lips tilted in a smile. “Thank you.”

He presses his lips to hers in a chaste, clumsy kiss that she loves all the more for its imperfection. “My pleasure.” 

Aleks . What a curious wonder he’s turned out to be.

His phone manifests in his hand, and he pulls up an app that turns on the television, all control again. “Brat’s choice.”

She snorts with laughter. Guess there’s no point protesting. And the word does fit, even if it’s altogether new and strange. “The brat would like Doctor Who , please.”

“Of course.”

Daddy. The word streaks through her mind, a spectral wisp of warmth, and she settles into Aleks’ body, savoring the weight of his chin on the crown of her head as psychedelic violet and azure light bursts to life on the screen.


“Alina.” A warm hand on her cheek, caressing her. “Alinochka.”

“Mm?”

“You fell asleep, sweetheart.” Her eyes creak open, and she squints against the light as Aleks brushes tendrils of hair back from her face, pressing a soft kiss to her brow. “I should get you home.”

“No,” she protests drowsily. She’s so warm, safe wrapped up in him. “I don’t want to. Not yet.”

“Oh, not yet?” he hums, amused. “Whatever am I to do with you in this state?”

“You could always fuck me again.”

He chuckles, the sound warm against her ear. “You, my dear, are hardly awake.”

Alina shrugs, drowsy and languid. Ready to belong to Aleks in another way. “I like being used.”

His heartbeat thumps through his chest, quickening. “Is that so.”

“You’ve read my kinks,” she murmurs. “But if you don’t like consensual somnophilia…”

His hand runs up the outside of her thigh, the touch hypnotic. Hungry. “I could be persuaded.”

“Hmm…” She nuzzles into his neck, savoring his soft hiss of pleasure as she kisses him. “Pretty please fuck me raw, Daddy?”

Fuck, ” he groans — but then he’s readjusting her in his lap, settling her so that his chest floods the back of her cardigan with heat. 

Aleks lays her head against the loveseat’s cushioned back like a pillow, his breaths coasting over the nape of her neck. His hands creep up to the neckline of her tank shirt, tugging both it and her bra down to bare her tits.

“Shh,” he mutters as she squirms. “You’re supposed to be asleep.”

Shitfuck. Alina grins, forcing herself to lie still as he cups her breasts, teasing her nipples until they stiffen. The jolts of electric pleasure are something only Aleks has ever coaxed from her, and she could lose herself in that alone. His hips nudge against the swell of her arse, and she bites her lower lip to keep from moaning as his jeans growl against the thin fabric of her leggings.

He takes his time kneading her, tracing circles around her areolas until the shards of light skittering deep in her belly grow brighter. His harsh breaths heat her skin, his heart beating faster between her shoulder blades as he rubs himself against her.

She whimpers as he nuzzles into her hair, fondling her with a rising urgency.

“Hush.”

A slow, wet kiss punctuates the word, and her own ardor rises as his hands slip back to her hips. He pushes the leggings and still-wet panties down, just far enough, and one arm steadies her as the other fumbles behind her arse.

He spits into his own hand, and the soft clicking of wet flesh meets her ears. Alina nips the inside of her cheek and closes her eyes, focusing on the feeling of the dark man behind her, around her.

“Daddy…” she sighs dreamily.

Aleks grunts quietly as he lifts her, negotiating his cockhead into her slippery crease — and then he’s shoving deep into her, muscular thighs framing hers as he sheathes himself in her pussy. His arms crisscross her body, carefully avoiding her scar and her bad arm as he pins her down in his lap.

He burns deep inside her, and she loses herself in his measured intrusions as he fucks up into her, slipping her good hand between her thighs to rub her clit.

“Alina…”  It’s nothing like the way he railed her earlier, but punishing in an altogether different way. His swollen cock throbs in her channel as he gropes her tits again, roughly now. “Jesus christ, you’re so tight…”

He strains against her cervix, and a series of whimpers force their way out of her as she mindlessly shatters.

There’s nothing in the world but Aleks, his thick length driving into her as she comes apart in his lap. He’s relentless, splintering her to her core, and a choked groan escapes him as his pace abruptly changes. 

He’s close.

He pounds into her hard, fast — and then he’s holding her down against his hips, thrusting deep as heat erupts in her cunt.

“Good girl,” Aleks groans as his second load of the night spurts into her. “ Fuck , you’re so good…”

His hands warm her breasts as he tucks them back into her bra and tank shirt, fingers stumbling as a few more beads of heat bloom deep inside her. He wraps his arms around Alina, holding her tenderly and dipping his head to press his cheek against hers. “I think your pussy must be magical. It’s the only rational explanation.”

She giggles as his beard tickles the curve of her neck — and then they’re gasping, shivering together, her cunt working him more in her paroxysms of laughter.

“Right, you’ve worn me out.” He kisses her cheek, his glasses scratching her skin from the unusual angle. “Time to get you home before I trap you here forever, little one.”

Doesn’t sound half bad.

Alina keeps that to herself, though, extracting herself from Aleks’ prick and embrace on wobbly legs — and she sticks out her tongue at him before scampering upstairs to the Room of Requirement to clean up.


“I’d like to ask you something.”

Os Kervo is gathering around them, the golden glow in her chest fading as the apartment looms just a few intersections ahead — and Aleks’ expression is somber enough to make her stomach lurch. “What’s wrong?”

Wrong? ” He steals a glance at her, and gives her hand a reassuring squeeze. “No, nothing. Quite the opposite, in fact.” Is it the shadows or is he blushing? “Some kinkster friends would like to have us over for tea.”

“Tea?” Alina scrunches her nose. “Is that code for something?”

“It’s code for putting dried leaves in water to make it taste nice, and then drinking it,” he says with a dry smirk.

She rolls her eyes, snickering. “Oh, don’t be a dick. It’s not, like … shroom tea, is my point.”

“Oh god, no. Just tea and snacks, not bring your own hallucinogens .”

Alina narrows her eyes, staring out at the snowy night as she tries to see how it all fits together. “Okay, sure, but … why?”

“Because you’re important to me.”

“Oh,” she says softly, the word popping out like a hiccup.

For a few moments there’s only the sedan’s quiet creaking, the pressure of Aleks scrawling little circles into her hand with his thumb. “Full disclosure,” he adds, the words halting, “they are my kink family. Or the closest thing I have to one.”

Family . Her heart stutters at the word. “Ah.”

“You might remember them from the munch — Baghra and Botkin,” Aleks goes on. The kindly elderly couple flash to the fore of her mind, and she nods. “They tend to look after me, whether I like it or not, and I’m sure it would do them good to know, er…” He trails off, his hand tightening on hers for a moment.

“That you’re not dating a creep?”

“No!” he blurts out. “That I’m happy! ” His horrified expression is enough to draw a laugh out of her, but he threads his fingers through hers even tighter. “Jesus, Alina…” 

“I mean, it’d be a fair worry. If it was my family.” Not the people who bore her, of course, but Genya. Mal. Nina. Inej, whenever she’s on the grid. “If they fell into something this hard— this fast — Not that I feel uncomfortable,” she interrupts herself as his lips pop open, “but from the outside, it might look…”

“It might look what? ” Aleks prompts gently as she falters.

“Intense.” It’s the only word that fits — and to Alina’s relief, he nods.

“No, this is just a casual get-to-know-you sort of thing. And afterwards you’ll be on their vetted list — meaning you’ll be able to attend their next party,” he adds with a flash of his eyebrows.

She relaxes against the seat. “Ah, the legendary ones you mentioned.”

“You remembered.” He sounds pleased, but the duplex is looming ahead, stealing her joy. “So if you’re open to it, maybe some afternoon this upcoming week I can bring you to the Electric Teakettle.”

“I thought you were supposed to wait three months to introduce a girlfriend or boyfriend to your family, not three dates, ” Alina teases as the porch light looms closer.

“Maybe in the world of vanilla dating, but this is different.” Aleks steals a glance at her as the directional starts to tick and the car inexorably begins to slow. “I think you’ll like them, and I know they’ll like you.”

“Optimist,” Alina grumbles.

He chuckles. “Why’s that such a bad thing?”

Because the world repays optimism with a punch in the gut. Or the shoulder. But all she says is, “Never mind.”

The car rolls to a stop, and Aleks’s eyes are ever-so-slightly narrowed behind his lenses as he turns to face her, giving her that look again. Trying to make her add up as he slides his arm around her, that crooked smirk claiming his lips. “So what d’you say, little brat? Want Daddy to take you to a tea party in a magical land full of freaks like ourselves?”

The words are light, merry — and Alina finds herself grinning despite herself as he pulls her close.

“Yes, please, Daddy,” she murmurs, and then his lips crush hers in a ravenous kiss. One that will have to last her all the lonely hours until they’re together again.

Chapter Text

“Alina!”

She glares at the door, grimly pleased at the singular bang of Mal walking into it facefirst as the lock holds. “What?”

“Open the damn door, I need to talk to you.”

She can hear his fuming huffs from the far side, and she sucks in a breath, bracing herself. After a moment her face is a mask of cool stone, and only then does she untwist the lock.

Mal’s cheeks and neck are blotched red with fury. “What d’you mean, what? Have you seen the kitchen sink?”

“Frequently. Almost always when I’m in the kitchen.”

He glares, nostrils flaring as he folds his arms over his chest. He’s wearing one of his fraternity sweatshirts today — and the resemblance to Nikolai, the way he’s standing, chin tucked, anger blazing in his eyes, makes her taste bile. “Don’t be a smartass, you know what I mean.”

“Why are you looking at me like that?” Alina demands, as that gut instinct screams danger.

“Because it’s your turn.”

The fuck? “I didn’t dirty any of those dishes, or eat any of what you made this weekend.” She points to the right side of the side, the strainer empty save for a few odd dishes. “Cereal, instant noodles, ice cream – it all goes in my bowl, and then I rinse it out.”

He twitches his head, huffing in disgust. “You have so much more free time than me, it’s not fair.”

Free time? ” Alina hisses in disbelief.

“Look, you can at least put that other stuff in the dishwasher, can’t you? I have to go to work.”

Then he simply stomps off to the living room, leaving her gaping in his wake.

She doesn’t even slam the door, just closes it quietly, the lock turning in a muted crack of metal. What’s the point? He’d just come snarling back. Then she retreats to her bed, curling in a corner of the room with the door dead ahead so she can see light and shadows under the crack. Waiting for him to leave so that she can move again.

It takes her five minutes to muster up a text to Genya.

Alina : Mal’s got a hair across his ass over something. He got really worked up over the dishes

The answering message comes with reassuring speed.

Genya : Probably jealous you’ve been out so much this week

Alina : Oh come on, that can’t be it

Genya : He turns cranky just when you start getting a life? I call sus 🙄

Alina : It can’t be that, he didn’t get all weird when Nikolai and I were together

Genya : Yeah, but he looked up to Nikolai — it was all that fraternity bs

Genya : Anyway, how’s tall dark & handsome?

With something so exciting looming on the horizon, she can almost shut out the sour fear at Mal’s pique. Almost .

Alina : Amazing. He’s taking me to the Electric Teakettle tomorrow for tea with Baghra & Botkin

Genya : AHHHHH THATS SO COOL

Genya : They have a really big masquerade coming up, you’ve gotta come — there’ll be fire play, axe throwing, plus a big bonfire 🔥🔥🔥

Alina : I really hope they like me

Genya : They will, love. Just be yourself, that’s really all you have to do ♥

She wrinkles her nose at the unsolicited optimism. Butterflies are already gathering in her gut at the thought of meeting other people that care for Aleks — and if she gets her hopes up, she’ll surely jinx it.

After the grumble of Mal’s truck vanishes away down the street, she does the dishes just to keep the peace. He’s probably just stressed about work, or maybe he lost his poker money to Dubrov or Mikhael. Better to just take care of it, instead of causing drama to explain why what he said was so damn wrong.


The wrought iron gate stands beneath a bower of weeping willows, seemingly neglected — and only because it’s an unseasonably sunny day that Alina catches the wink of a security camera nestled in one of the stone buttresses.

Aleks slips his phone out of his pocket, tapping it awake and then lifting it to his ear. Is he calling someone? He must be, but all he says is, “Yeah, we’re out front” before clicking it off and tucking it back in his pocket.

Just as she’s about to ask what or who they’re waiting for, a loud clank reverberates along the banked rock walls. The gate swings inward slowly, as though drawn open by an invisible hand. Maybe he wasn’t kidding about this place being magical.

The road beyond is unpaved, but twin dirt lines carve parallel tracks through the grassy earth, a chassis’ width apart. Only dappled light makes it through the canopy, and Alina squints through the underbrush, catching the flick of a white tail as a shadowed shape flees deeper into the thicket. “I think I just saw a deer.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised. This parcel of land is something like fifty acres.” He flashes her a predatory grin. “Plenty of room to run.”

It sounds like a lot — and certainly Alina doesn’t see any buildings at first, just the woods and the humble road winding through them. Then the forest opens up, the trees that line the narrow track meeting in one final arch of vegetation before giving way to a rolling, well-groomed meadow.

The grassland flows away down to the edge of a lake, navy water flat and glittering in the late afternoon sun. For a few moments Alina can’t make sense of the silhouette, twin lumps set beside each other before the lakeside, one far taller and thicker than the other. A building. No two . One that’s the size of a large house, the other a slim tower, their bottom storeys connected by an enclosed breezeway.

The design of both makes the words Victorian Gothic float through Alina’s mind; as they draw nearer, the sharp angles of pitched roofs, wraparound balconies, and ornately designed gables beg to be sketched. Only the very top of the tower is different, its roof domed instead of terminating in a vertiginous peak.

“I think I can see where the Teakettle gets its name,” she muses, squinting at buildings as they draw nearer.

“If you squint…” Aleks supplies.

“Exactly.” It’s like picking out shapes in the clouds, a mere suggestion, but all the more beautiful in its reality.

He chuckles. “Wait until you see it lit up for an event.”

“Is that where the Electric part of things comes in?”

“That and the solar panels on the southern-facing roofs. Between those and the generators, the house is self-sustaining.” He points to the squared-off patches of tilled earth, fenced in by walls of chicken wire. “The gardens are almost done for the season, but there are a few greenhouse frames closer to the house. And the orchards,” he adds, indicating lines of gnarled trees that stand at the edge of the forest, a vanguard before the open bowl of the meadow.

The slender, single-lane course terminates in the gravel rectangle of a parking lot that only holds a few slumbering vehicles — a pickup truck and several cars. None are particularly ostentatious, and all are streaked with dust, which makes Alina’s curiosity about the house and its occupants burn brighter.

Aleks pulls to a stop near the door, parking in a gap in the neat line, and Alina smooths the blue plaid dress over her knees as the car’s motor quiets. Now that they’re not backlit by the sun, she can see that the buildings are gaily painted in shades of violet, azure, emerald. The riotous colors are set against black, giving the effect of an eldritch gemstone.

“It’s called stick style ,” Aleks tells her, correctly interpreting her awed stare.

“Oh, are you an architecture professor now?” Alina teases.

He grins as he pops his door. “Actually, I used to live here.”

What? She scowls after him, but there’s no time to explain — he’s already out of the vehicle and standing up, the door thumping shut behind him.

“You’re very dramatic,” Alina announces as he joins him.

He snorts, tendrils of his dark hair falling over his forehead as he nods to the larger building, its grand entrance waiting ahead of them. “We’re standing next to a house that looks like this and you call me dramatic?”

“You could’ve told me anytime before now that you’d actually lived here.”

His brow furrows as he crosses behind her, enveloping her good hand in his larger one as he draws even with her again. “You’re going to have questions — ones that aren’t mine to answer. I’d like you to have the opportunity to learn directly from the source. Or sources, as it so happens.”

The huge wooden doors gleam before them, their lacquer flashing gold in the late afternoon sun. Yet Aleks doesn’t pause, or lift his hand to the elaborate brass knockers set in each. He simply opens the door.

The foyer that greets them is cool, shadowed, stained glass windows splashing the space with roseate light. It looks like some of the old New England homes-turned-museums she’s been in over the years, the space high-ceilinged, hardwood floors preserved as beautifully as the front door. The walls have been papered in a rich damask that shimmers indigo before her eyes as they stop, Aleks shutting the door behind them with a sonorous clunk.

A staircase rises before them, splitting in opposite directions at an imposing landing lorded over by oil paintings that must be as large as Alina herself. “Oh my god ,” she gasps reverently as her eyes make sense of them; they’re stunning, sensual as Waterhouse’s mermaids and witches, ecstatic as Degas’ ballerinas, naked bodies intertwined and exhibited without any pretense of shame.

She’s so absorbed by the beauty of the place that she doesn’t hear the soft footsteps until Aleks says, “Hello, David.”

The young man freezes, caught in the act of barreling into the entry hall from one of the arched doorways that flank the bottom of the stairs. He looks spooked as Alina to not find himself alone in the foyer, his brown eyes wide and startled beneath dark hair that falls over his forehead. The stranger is almost as tall as Aleks, willow-slender, awkward as he moves closer — and vaguely familiar.

“Aleks. Hello.” David glances about, brows knitted like he’s trying to work something out, his eyes never once settling on Alina. “What are you doing here?”

“Just visiting Baghra and Botkin.” Aleks’s glasses flash with the pinkish light from the stained glass windows as he nods to her, giving her hand a reassuring squeeze. “This is my girlfriend, Alina.”

“Oh.” David blinks, starting again in surprise as he finally looks at her. “The munch.”

Yes. He’d been there in the room beyond the beaded curtain, too, keeping to himself just as much as Alina. “It’s lovely to meet you, David.” His head dips, and his gaze flits down to the spray of paint brushes he’s carrying, picking at their coppery ferrules like he’s uncomfortable with eye contact. “I think you know my friend Genya?”

“Yes, of course.” That seems to ease him, if only a little. Then he straightens, and his eyes find hers before he looks away again. “Nice to meet you. Ivan and Fedyor should be coming.”

With that he abruptly hurries off, trotting up the stairs and leaving them alone in the foyer.

Ah. Now she understands Genya’s consternation. Some people are more difficult to read than others, and David seems positively mystifying. He seems nice, though.

“Is he a painter?” Alina asks quietly as David’s footsteps disappear overhead.

“He specializes in restoration and preservation.”

“I’m sure he stays busy,” Alina murmurs, her eyes creeping back to the paintings that crown the stairs.

“Between Baghra and Botkin and their vast network of friends, I’d imagine so.”

The footfalls that rise from the back hall this time are loud, authoritative — and there are two of them. Alina nudges into Aleks, reassured by his looming presence as a pair of men join them, both dressed in comfortable-looking crimson tunics. Both are paler than David, one taller with pale reddish stubble, close-cropped hair and hazel eyes, the shorter one dark-eyed, his brown hair neatly slicked back.

The men stop before them, offering nods of greeting. Though the man with the hazel eyes is sober, the one with the combed-back hair grins broadly. “Aleks, so glad you’re here.”

“You, too, Fedyor.” He nods at the pale, somber man. “Ivan.”

The man dips his head again. “Good to see you.”

“You too, my friend.” Alina’s cheeks warm as he nods to her again. “Allow me to introduce my girlfriend, Alina.”

“Welcome,” Fedyor says, beaming warmly like they’re old pals, and Ivan offers her a nod. Maybe he just has resting bitch face.

“Nice to meet you,” Alina replies automatically, a nervous smile tugging at her lips.

Fedyor claps Aleks on the shoulder. “Come, they’re waiting out back.”

The two men lead them beyond the archway and through a series of halls that leave her head spinning. A library, tall and narrow, rolling ladders leaning against the laden shelves. A music parlor with a host of stringed instruments resting in neat stands, a baby grand gleaming before a window that overlooks the lake. A grand sitting room, chaise longues and and brocaded chairs set around fireplaces that stand silent amid the day’s warmth.

Finally they reemerge into the sunlight, onto a patio that’s nestled in the lee of the building. Tremendous wrought-iron windows — which must belong to a solarium if the vegetation within is any indication — form a scalloping line along the edge of the house. 

The elderly couple are seated comfortably on adjoining sides of a square table that’s been set with an army of finger sandwiches. Maybe even two. Glass tea cups painted with cherry blossoms rest before them on matching saucers, and two more places sit waiting on the other half of the table.

They both smile in greeting but don’t rise — and Aleks releases Alina’s hand to move to the elegant older woman’s side, bending to kiss her cheek in greeting. “Good afternoon, Baghra.”

“Aleksander.” She smiles at the greeting — but her blue eyes are already fixed on Alina, bright with curiosity and bluer than the lake. “And this must be Alina. Welcome, my dear.”

“Thank you, ma’am.” The other woman is so imposing in her flowing black robes that for a moment Alina has the odd impulse to curtsey. It’s not just what Baghra’s wearing, nor even the way her silver hair is pulled back in an elegant braided chignon. It’s her bearing, radiating confidence and gravitas, as though she’s the center of the world and understands its weight. “Please, call me Baghra.”

Aleks kisses Botkin’s cheek the same way, and with a few lanky strides he’s back around the table, drawing out Alina’s chair for her.

“Just don’t call her mother ,” Botkin chortles with a brush of his iron-grey beard — and as Baghra laughs, too, Alina glances between them with an uncertain smile. Did I miss something?

“I called you that one time, ” Aleks mutters, rolling his eyes as he settles into the chair beside Alina’s, his cheeks flushing faintly, “in jest at that—”

“And you never made that mistake again, did you?” Baghra responds with a smug sip of her tea.

“He couldn’t sit right for a week,” the older man guffaws, the sterling threads of his tailored vest shining like the lake as he laughs.

Baghra leans closer to Alina, her eyes twinkling with conspiratorial glee. “Evil sticks. Very evil indeed.”

Aleks is smiling now, too, albeit sheepishly. If this were anyone else she might pull out her phone and look it up on the ’net, but she just can’t . Not in this beautiful place, with the older couple making such an obvious effort to engage her. 

“I’ve never seen one before.”

Baghra leans back, and her azure eyes flick to a point beyond and above Alina’s shoulder. “Fedyor.”

Her voice is sharp with purpose, and Alina turns in time to see the flash of a crimson robe disappearing back inside. Ivan stands waiting on the other side of the still-closing door like a sentinel, hands folded before his body, but his counterpart is gone. I didn’t even realize they were waiting .

“Sasha was in my service at the time,” Baghra says, her lips curving in a fond smile as she takes another sip of her tea.

Meteoric heat races up Alina’s spine — and she glances at Aleks to find him already watching her, even as he lifts the teapot to pour her a steaming cup. His head dips in a faint but distinct nod, urging her on as her heartbeat quickens and her stomach goes into free-fall.

“What does that entail? —if you don’t mind me asking,” she adds quickly.

“We love questions here,” Botkin volunteers, helping himself to a sandwich that vanishes in a single bite.

Baghra sets her cup on its saucer and moves one of the tiered trays of food aside, sliding it out of the way so that Alina can see the lacquered tabletop. The design is alternating striations of light and dark wood from the edge to the middle — and Baghra runs her hand over the cleared space.

“Our community is like the rings of a tree.” She taps the edge of the table with a neat fingernail. “The outermost layer is the people who move in the community, popping up now and again.” Her finger moves to the next ribbon of wood. “Closer are the regular visitors, those who are vetted to attend our semi-public events.” Then the next. “Closer still are those who stay with us — those like David, wandering souls who need refuge from the world’s indifference.” Baghra’s hand moves to one final strip of wood, which, through accident or intention, is one of the darker bands. “And then there are our apprentices. Our family.”

“One apprentice each, one at a time,” Botkin puts in.

Baghra’s eyes dart to the staunch man still standing by the door. “Currently we’re training Ivan and Fedyor.”

Alina steals a glance at Aleks again, but he’s simply watching the exchange as he helps himself to a couple of the delicate finger sandwiches. Somehow two have also found their way onto her plate as she was distracted with Baghra’s explanation. “So are you their Dominants?”

Baghra tilts her head, considering. “In a sense. We take accountability for their training, including corrections as needed. It’s not the same as a Dominant/submissive-type relationship, but we aim to prepare them for such. Through service, they learn to be masters and mistresses in their own right.”

Whoa. Alina isn’t entirely sure whether to believe it, but they’re all so calm about it, she can’t be having her on. “That’s a lot of responsibility, to get nothing in return,” Alina says warily.

Baghra gives that birdlike smile of hers. “Nothing sexual or psychological, perhaps, but the community that we’re helping to build is payment enough.”

“Hopefully you haven’t had the misfortune to run into the kink lifestyle’s more unsavory elements,” Botkin rumbles — and for the first time today, his cheery mood is tamped down by something else. Concern? Distaste? Probably a bit of both.

She doesn’t have to say anything, of course. A few words and surely the mood would lift again, but for once, she’s among people who might understand. No, who will . “In a sense. My ex-husband Nikolai,” Alina ventures. “It all seemed like fun to him, not so serious as this.”

“I’m trying to show Alina a more rigorous side of the lifestyle,” Aleks tells the older couple.

“Wonderful,” Baghra sounds so enthusiastic, it’s like someone’s just told her they’ve joined a master’s degree program. “Please feel free to message either of us at any time if you have questions.”

Alina peeks at Aleks again, but he’s calmly drinking his tea. “That wouldn’t be like … going outside a chain of command?”

“We’re not so much a hierarchy as a web, my dear,” the older woman says. “A question that might be uncomfortable to ask one person might be easier to pose to another.”

“Hopefully I’ll be able to answer questions, but I don’t want you to feel like I’m gatekeeping information,” Aleks says, and the warmth of his hand settling on her thigh is a reassuring anchor.

“Thank you,” she murmurs — and she meets each of their eyes so they know she means all of them.

“Now then, I understand you’re new to Os Kervo,” Baghra says as Alina takes a drink of her tea. It’s the perfect temperature, sweet and herbal without verging on cloying.

“I’ve been here for a couple of months? I’m still settling in,” Alina adds quickly. 

Baghra’s bright blue gaze turns to Aleks. “Sasha, you should bring her to the Hallow Masquerade.” She leans closer to Alina again. “It’s a wonderful way to meet new friends, if I do say so myself.”

“We’ll have a bonfire by the lake, fire play and violet wand demonstrations,” Botkin tells her, “not to mention impact play, wax, rope, and a primal hunt.”

“And as always, what happens in the orchard stays in the orchard,” Baghra chimes in — and with that everyone’s smiling again.

Fedyor returns as Alina’s scarfing down one of the cucumber sandwiches, which is utterly delicious. The object he hands Baghra is about a foot long, with a section of emerald crystals on one end that are reminiscent of rock candy speared on a long, narrow black stick. The older woman holds it by the crystalline end, a witch with her wand. “Carbon fiber core, so it’s nice and springy. It’s such fun.”

Then she proffers the evil stick, holding it out to Alina.

“Don’t worry, it’s thoroughly sanitized.”

“I’m sorry to interrupt, my lady, that one’s actually new,” Fedyor says from his position beside the door, a living gargoyle to match the dour Ivan. “Fresh out of the package.”

“Well done, my dear,” Baghra says, rewarding the young man with a smile that makes him blush. Then her attention turns back to Alina. “There, perfectly sanitary. Only if you’d like to, of course.”

Alina accepts it and turns it over in her hands. Narcissa Malfoy would own something like this. “Wow. So you … hit someone with it?”

“Hold it in one hand, then just give it a little flick with your finger,” the silver-haired woman tells her, miming the action. “Like this.”

Alina can’t do that, of course, but she tugs the hem of her dress up to her mid-thigh and braces the tip of the evil stick against her forearm, snapping it against her bare skin like striking a match.

She twitches bolt upright as the stinging pain blooms through her flesh, a pink line seared into her flesh. “ Oh!

“Enough to leave one hell of a mark, if you know what you’re doing,” Botkin says with a mischievous grin.

“Which I very much do,” Baghra says, preening faintly. Then she peers at Alina, catching something in her expression. “What is it, my dear?”

“You’re not exactly the whip-cracking Dominants I expected,” Alina admits — and Botkin roars with laughter. “What?”

Aleks smirks, squeezing her knee. “Botkin is a renowned whip expert.” 

“Mm, foot in my mouth, my favorite,” Alina mutters, but she’s smiling, too, grinning so hard her cheeks hurt.

“I can see why you and Sasha get along — you have that same sense of humor.” Baghra’s peering at them over her teacup, clearly amused. “Laughter, love and BDSM … you can get through anything with those.”

She’s so sure of herself, Alina feels herself caught up in it enough to ask, “You really think so?”

“Kink is a wonderful tool for exploring the human psyche,” the older woman replies, the very words warm. “So often sexuality, which is such a tremendous part of who we are — is relegated to the background.” She smiles faintly, shaking her head. “You must excuse me, my dear, I have a whole speech about the crushing effect of patriarchal cultures on the individual psyche… Another time.” She pauses, drawing a breath before going on: “Point being, the damage that’s done to us by the world” —Her clear blue eyes move to Aleks before returning, and Alina has the sudden feeling that the older woman is trying to impress her words not just on her, but him too— “well, sometimes it’s by going deeper into the darkness that we find the light.”

Chapter Text

“Did Baghra really mean what she said about using kink to deal with trauma?”

Firelight flares over Aleks’ face as he shoves another log into the woodstove, the warmth abruptly vanishing as he closes the open door. He looks back at her as he straightens, his dark eyes sober. “It helped me.”

“Tell me,” Alina murmurs.

He joins her on the loveseat, drawing her into his arms and pulling her legs over his lap as her body thrills with his closeness. Yet his expression is still shadowed with pain, that shallow slash of a wrinkle between his brows. “My mother was a single parent. She did her best, and she loved me, she just…” He sighs heavily. “She loved heroin more.”

Fuck. “Oh Aleks—”

“She died when I was in undergrad, and fortunately, I’d just found this place. Os Kervo, I mean.” His hand runs over her back in distracted strokes. “For a while I was like David, living in the Little Palace, being a hermit — but then Baghra took me on as her apprentice, and I learned how to put myself back together again. To love myself when I believed I was unlovable.”

“Oh fuck,” Alina mutters. To ever think he was unlovable…

Aleks twitches his head, pulling himself out of the past. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to bring down the mood after such a lovely afternoon—”

“No, it’s fine. I want to know about you, whatever you want to share.” She traces the outline of the epaulet patch on his sweater, anchored by the perfect line of stitches at its edge. “My parents were alcoholics. They died in a drunk-driving accident when I was ten.”

There. Her darkest, deepest pain given voice. The words flat with anger.

“Alinochka…” He settles her closer, the pain on his face tinged with worry as he watches her. Worry for her, even if she doesn’t really need it now. That’s all ancient history. “I went to live with Mal and his foster family — they had a lot of kids, one more hardly made a difference. And they were all right, they were really nice and all, it’s just…” She plucks at a tiny ball of lint, fiddling with it so she doesn’t have to meet his smoky quartz gaze. “It’s not the same.”

“No, it isn’t,” he agrees quietly.

“So I just— I know what it’s like to be alone,” Alina blunders on self-consciously. “To have to be strong, because you don’t have anyone else to be strong for you.”

Then she does look at him — and it’s like gazing into a mirror. Not a trace of sappy sympathy, only that same grim determination reflected back at her. The black fire that’s always kept her going, even through the valley of death half a year ago. “You’ve got me now.”

Alina arches an eyebrow. “We haven’t even known each other a month.”

“I know, but still — it’s never too early to start building trust. And I’d very much like to earn yours, pet.” His hand runs up the outside of her thigh, not pushing under the fabric but skimming over it. Hinting, but not taking. “I have an idea, if you’re open to it.”

She squints playfully, scrunching up her nose. The afternoon beside the lake with the elder kinksters has left her languid, curious. “What does that mean?”

“Stay here,” he says, and carefully settles her legs back on the loveseat, slipping away upstairs.

Alina bounces her knees as she waits, tracking the sound of Aleks’s footsteps as he moves to the bedroom. Pausing long enough to make her anticipation spike before tracing a return path, and when he reemerges down the stairs there’s something in each of his hands.

“Does Daddy have a lesson plan?” she purrs, excited to recognize the parcel of crimson rope.

“Daddy does.” He rolls his eyes, shaking his head as she giggles. “I’m just steering into the skid at this point, sweetheart.”

“Sure you are,” she agrees, scooching aside to give him room to sit back down beside her. 

Aleks sets the two things on his lap, and Alina’s stomach swoops with delight as she recognizes the black bundle. A blindfold.  

“I want to tie your arms in front of you like this” —He holds his arms before his torso, not crossing them over his chest but forearms lying parallel against his abdomen— “put you over my lap naked while I sit on a chair, and play with your body.”

“I won’t be able to catch myself if I lose my balance,” Alina protests, hating herself for the coil flare of concern that grips her, “and with the blindfold on—”

“—you’ll have to trust me to take care of you,” Aleks agrees, his low voice smooth as mead. “Yes.”

His eyes burn into her, and she shifts in her seat as her sex tightens at the prospect of what he’s offering. “Why? You could just fuck me.”

“Could do,” he says with a lopsided shrug — but his eyes stay locked on hers.
“What do you want, Alina?”

It’s too tempting to resist. After a moment’s hesitation she reaches out, tapping the blindfold and rope.

“Wonderful,” Aleks murmurs, and the kiss he presses to her lips is hungry, if brief. She stands as he does, and he nods to her blue plaid dress. “Naked except for your socks, please.”

“My socks?”

He’s already moving to the kitchen table, dragging one of the armless wooden chairs into the center of the living room. “I don’t want your feet to get cold.”

“Strange kind of punishment, if you’re worried about my toes,” Alina teases.

“BDSM isn’t necessarily punishment,” He tosses his head, lips curving as he beckons her closer. “Come here.”

Alina joins him, and Aleks sets the rope and blindfold aside on the chair, welcoming her into his arms. He nuzzles into her, chasing her lips — and then his mouth is pressed to hers, his ravenous breaths heating her cheek.

Alina goes up on her toes and he gathers her closer, lifting her and cradling her against the length of his body. The soft fabric of her dress slips over her head easily, peeled off her by his skillful hands, and she shivers at the cabin’s chilly air.

“Feeling okay?” he murmurs.

She sways into him, nodding. Eager for his touch.

Her bra quickly follows, and Aleks drags her panties down off her hips. Then she’s naked save for her black ankle socks, skin prickling with awareness as he picks up the length of crimson rope.

He runs his palm over her left forearm, pausing at her wrist and coaxing her fingers open. As ever, her thumb stubbornly refuses to move. “How’s your arm feeling today?”

“Status quo. Still numb, dumb, and unfortunately not full of cum,” she quips, and though he smiles it’s a pale one.

Aleks guides her into the pose he’d shown her before. Her arms rest against the plane of her stomach, framing the curves of her breasts, but he’s so focused that he doesn’t seem to notice her nakedness as she holds her forearms parallel — and he starts to wrap the doubled-over rope around them, slipping the tail through the hooked end and reversing, looping the rope through itself in a sort of gauntlet.

“You know you don’t have to hide behind humor, don’t you? Don’t get me wrong,” the dark man hurries to add, his brows lifting in the middle as he works the rope, “I love how funny you are. But you don’t have to use it like a shield. If you feel uncomfortable, vulnerable, I want to know.” He pauses and touches her chin, achingly tender. “You don’t have to hide from me, sweetheart.”

“I do feel comfortable here, if that means anything,” Alina offers softly as he continues charming the twin lines around her arms. “Usually I feel uncomfortable around other people like, y’know, this —”

“Naked?” Aleks volunteers wickedly.

“Yes, naked. ” She peers up at him. “Why do you insist on me saying things like that out loud?”

He brushes the back of his knuckles against the swell of her breast, taunting her with the light touch. “Because I love how it makes you squirm.”

The armbinder is wide and exquisitely beautiful when it’s finished, the lines all lying neatly, holding her forearms firmly as a finger trap. Even the little ends are tucked away, giving the illusion that the gauntlet is infinite. Unbreakable.

Aleks tugs at it here and there, scowling with focus. “Too tight?”

She shakes her head.

“Out loud, please.”

“No, Daddy,” Alina drawls sweetly. “It’s just tight enough.”

Aleks sighs in mock disappointment — but the ghost of a smile plays over his lips, and the swat he gives her bare ass cheek isn’t even a love tap. “Oh you .” He hooks the blindfold over his forefinger, dangling it before Alina as his other arm slips around her waist. “Ready for this?”

“Why tonight?” she asks. Not judging, simply curious.

“Because I want you to focus on what you’re feeling.” He nuzzles into her, his glasses snagging on her hair as his lips graze her neck in a feather-soft kiss. “I want you to get lost in me, Alya. Just for a little while.”

Hesitantly, she nods, and as she closes her eyes the world goes dark.

The silken mask is cool against her skin — and to Alina’s surprise the pressure is reassuring. She instinctively tries to move her arms, but the rope binder is as unyielding as before.

Heat traces down her back — Aleks’s hand? — and then he’s a solid wall before her, his sweater soft against the stiff buds of her nipples. His beard tickles her cheek as he gives her a chaste kiss. “We’re going to sit down now, okay?”

“Yes,” Alina breathes. His warmth vanishes from before her, but his hands claim her hips, steadying her as the chair creaks with his weight. His palms slide lower, settling on the back of her legs. Fingers wrapping tight around her curves, guiding her over him so that she’s straddling his lap, the denim of his jeans rasping against her inner thighs.

Her feet swing in the air as Aleks pulls her closer, settling her flush with his torso. “Your sweater,” she murmurs, feeling the softer fabric pressing into her belly. “Take that off at least.”

“Don’t worry about what I’m wearing,” he hums. He cages his arms about her, urging her against him. “Just be here. Be with me.”

Bit by bit she relaxes, hosts of muscles going slack in turn until she settles into his embrace. One hand traces over her back in soothing strokes as the other arm tethers her to him, and she settles her head against his shoulder, facing away — but his fingers find her cheek, urging her the other way, coaxing her into burrowing into the curve of his neck.

For a timeless eternity he simply holds her wordlessly, his body speaking for him. She can feel his fondness for her in his touch, possessive and reverent, ravenous and patient. His heart pounds in his chest, fast and steady, and she doesn’t need vision to sense him turning toward her.

And his scent … fuck, it doesn’t just surround her, it permeates her body. Spice, heat, fire, calling to her. Craving her submission.

Aleks’s lips seal against hers, drinking her in. Plying her gently at first, his soft, wet kisses teasing her. But instead of parting her lips, he traces a line to the corner of her jaw, dragging his teeth over her earlobe in a way that makes her gasp.

“Trust me, Alina,” he murmurs, his breath buzzing against the shell of her ear and sending goosebumps racing down the nape of her neck. “I won’t let you fall.”

Her spine bows, her body sinking into his touch as he kisses his way lower, finding the hollow of her throat, her collarbone, the swell of her breast. She moans softly as he cups her tit higher and torments her nipple, tracing wet swirls around her areola before rolling the peak between his teeth. Flicking the tip of his tongue over his delicate prisoner.

Alina mindlessly pushes into him, shoving her hips down, moving with him as he rocks beneath her. Cradling the underside of her thigh in one hand, dragging her against the place in his jeans that’s swollen, hard. Her skin is burning for him, the touch of his bare skin electric against her own.

“You’re shaking,” he mutters into her skin.

“I’m not used to people fucking me at all,” Alina admits quietly, the words hitching as he caresses her. “Let alone like this.

A laugh coils out of the darkness, icy and perilously soft. “Oh, now I’m fucking you, am I?” The hand beneath her thigh withdraws, but his other arm keeps her bound to him as he shoves between their bodies. Driving deeper, his fingers finding her pussy and scrawling wet ribbons through her vulnerable skin. “Is this fucking you, Alina? Or are you such a spoiled brat that you think I’m going to fuck you no matter what?”

“Daddy, no!” she whimpers, and then the breath catches in her throat, her cheeks burning with humiliation. “ Fuck, why does it feel good to call you that?”

“Why does it feel so good to hear it?” Aleks rasps into her skin. He palms her as she rides him, hips twitching with each grind of his thumb against her clit.

“Are you going to make me come like this?”

“I could .” Alina moans as Aleks drags his hand against her again, his fingers slick with her arousal. “But I’m a greedy man. I want more.” 

He presses a kiss to the side of her neck, hot and hungry, and she’s so distracted that she almost doesn’t feel him unfastening his pants. He grunts quietly, and then his hard length is pressing into her lower abdomen, velvet over stone.

“Feel this?” He nudges into her, stroking himself. “That’s all for you, love. No one else.”

Fuck, ” she groans. I want him. All of him.

Aleks’s arms go tight around her body again, resettling her so that her cunt is flush with the base of his cock, thick and hard against her belly. “Do you trust me to take you for a ride? Make you come?”

She nods, his sweater soft against her chin.

“Tell me.”

The words come easier here in the darkness: “Yes, Daddy, I want to go for a ride on your cock.”

“Good girl.” Her cunt clenches around nothing at the words. “And do you want me to fuck you raw?”

It hasn’t been so bad not being able to touch him, but now that his roused erection is there between their bodies, so close yet utterly out of reach, it’s agonizing. “Yes, please.”

“Since you said please, how can I resist?” He sounds like he’s smiling, and primal disappointment roils through her as his hands find her hips, guiding her back to her feet before the chair.

The telltale rustling of fabrics fills the void, and then his huge hands swallow her hips once more. As he pulls her forward over his lap, his skin blazes against her own, so vital that she yelps. He shoved his pants down.

“Can you feel how much I want you?” Aleks breathes as he settles her against him.

“Yes.” Alina presses a kiss to his bearded jaw. “I want you, too.”

“Why?”

There’s a soft desperation in his voice, an urgency that she might not have heard with her eyes open. He really needs to know.

“Because you’re kind and you’re cruel and you’re clever and sexy … you know how to make me come so fucking hard—” she whispers, snuggling into him the best that she can with her arms bound. “Aleks—”

Fuck, Alina…” His hands slide under her arse, and Alina yips with the sudden, disconcerted sense of him lifting her — but he only brings her soaked entrance to his cockhead, his precum staining her skin. The breath runs out of her lungs on a river of pleasure as he notches himself into her hollow and impales her on him, feeding her his length so languidly that she whines.

Then their bodies are flush, the whole of his thick length seated in her aching cunt. Her thighs tighten, and Aleks growls wordlessly as he begins to move inside her.

“Shh.” A reassuring hand strokes her hair, and he slants his mouth over hers, thrusting up into her. The pinch, the stretch of him filling her verges on too much, but it’s perfect. The line of pleasure and pain is what she needs to get off — really get off — and it’s as though Aleks remembers that. “Just relax. I’ve got you.”

Alina tugs at the ropes binding her forearms, but there’s nothing to be done. Between the knotted lines and his iron embrace she’s thoroughly trapped; all she can do is sag against his chest, letting him work her body with his own.

Aleks’s arms slide around her again, his incursions becoming rougher. His ragged breaths turn her on almost as much as his touch, a harsh panting that’s tight with desire. “Tell me what to do, what you need—”

“I need you. Daddy,” Alina begs, “just you … don’t stop…”

He strains into her belly in deep, brutal strokes, pounding into her as his glans rubs against her g-spot. A storm of sensations howls through her body, lightning that’s rooted in her core. She’s mounted on him, his stony cock sunk in her belly, forcing her closer to rapture … and there’s nothing she could do to stop him. Even if she wanted to.

“Fuck, Daddy,” she whimpers as her pleasure coils higher, making her tighten and quake.

He only plunges into her harder with wet sounds that leave her sobbing as the base of his cock teases her clit. “That’s right, babygirl, come for Daddy.”

“I want you to come, too,” she gasps out. She’s at his mercy, her pussy clamping around him with every sharp stroke.

Her answer is a hoarse laugh, and the savage snap of his hips as he transfixes her.

Aleks ,” she begs.

“I’ve got you, sweetheart,” he rumbles, cradling her close — and someone with her voice gives a strangled cry as she comes apart, splintered on him.

Aleks slows, fucking her through the orgasm as she sucks in weeping breaths. Only once she’s on the far side does he quicken, rutting into her sore cunt faster, harder. Slamming up into her, forcing his unyielding cock through the tight ring of her inner walls as his frame begins to shake.

A guttural groan rips out of his throat, and then she’s pressed to his chest, his muscular arms cradling her close as his seed throbs into her. She grinds her hips, helping him along. Teasing out every fresh spurt of cum, the beads of heat making her flutter with renewed pleasure.

He trails his fingers down the soft groove of her spine, and their bodies tighten in a way that leaves them both panting.

“Alina…”

The pressure of the blindfold slips away, and she squints against the light to find his black eyes smoldering into her. Somewhere along the way he discarded his glasses, and he presses his forehead to hers. “Thank you for trusting me.”

She melts into his chest, panting with exertion and exquisitely spent. “Guess I kinda like you.”

“Guess so,” he murmurs, laughing — and the kiss he presses to her lips makes something tug deep inside her. Something that’s more than sex. More than anything she’s ever felt before.


Alina’s gut lurches as she tugs her dress back over her head to find Aleks staring at her, brow furrowed in thought. “What’d I do?”

“What? Nothing.” His glower deepens with confusion. “Why would you ask that?”

“Because of the weird way you’re looking at me.”

“You should spend the night,” he says abruptly.

“What?” A goofy laugh pops out of her as her gut flips again. He can’t mean that. “No.”

“That was an intense scene, Alina.” His dark gaze pins her socked feet to the floor. “If you drop later on in the night—”

Her pulse skips like a pond stone. “I’ll be fine. Anyway, I have therapy coming up, my brain weasels will stay in check.”

He clamps his lips into a bloodless line, tendons popping in the hollows of his temples. “It really worries me when you say I’ll be fine so dismissively like that.”

“It’s not dismissive, I just…” She pads closer, nudging into his embrace. He twines his arms around her willingly enough, but his expression is just as troubled. “I’ve been through a lot, I know what I can take.”

“Just promise me you’ll call, text, anything if something happens. I don’t care if it’s three in the morning.”

Alina reaches up to cup his scruffy cheek, studying him. “You really mean that, don’t you?”

“I meant it when I said that your safety is important to me. That includes your emotional well-being,” he insists quietly.

“Then you’re in luck. I don’t cry.”

Aleks looks startled. “What — ever?”

“I didn’t cry when I had cancer. Well, once,” Alina amends lightly, “but that was a whole different thing. Not so much the cancer as the ex being a shitlord when I was in treatment.”

“That’s anything but reassuring.” He huffs out a breath through his nose, watching her with that same troubled look. “Now I really don’t want to let you go home.”

“Aleks, I’ll be fine. For real. And I promise you that if anything happens, I’ll let you know.”

She rises up on her toes to kiss him again — and maybe it’s only her imagination, but it feels like he clutches her tighter. Like he doesn’t want to let her slip away.

Chapter Text

Alina fiddles with the cuffs of her sweater, tugging one side over her left hand before wriggling her right wrist back into the tunnel of her sleeve. Words have been spilling out of her mouth since she plopped down in the oversized armchair, and now she’s all too aware of the silence.

She dares to look up, but as ever, the older woman sitting opposite isn’t watching her with anything akin to censure. Her blue eyes remind Alina of Baghra, but that’s where the resemblance between the two women ends. Where Baghra is poised, the lynchpin of a dark world, Ana Kuya is relaxed, comfortable in her computer chair and oversized pink houndstooth sweater.

The whole office is cushy, in fact, if somewhat small. Just Ana Kuya’s desk that bears her laptop and a few stacks of papers, a bulletin board tacked full of healthcare brochures, and a pair of oversized armchairs that flank a table of tissues and fidget-friendly toys.

“Well.” Ana Kuya blinks as she visibly considers the Isengardian flood of words Alina’s just spewed out. “That all certainly sounds eventful.”

Alina laughs weakly. “Accurate.”

The therapist smiles, too, crossing her legs and rocking slightly in her chair. She has a calming vibe, never distracted with anything, just listening as Alina speaks. Like Ana Kuya’s a friend that she hasn’t seen for a few weeks. “So to me it sounds like we’ve got three big things up to bat.” She ticks them off on her fingers: “The new relationship, the fallout from the breakup with Nikolai, and cancer.”

“That’s a lot of balls in the air.” Another nervous laugh rattles out of Alina. “On the upside, my nightmares have been sorta quiet.”

“That’s great.” Ana Kuya’s voice glows with reassurance. “And sure, it is a fair bit to handle. but each of us has a lot going on at any given time — friends, relationships, work. Or in your case, whatever you choose to turn your attention to, like volunteering and hobbies. Not now, but in time, when you’re ready.” She smiles encouragingly. “Tell me about Aleks.”

“He’s this kind, nerdy guy — not a guy, I mean, he’s an English professor. A bit older than me, but we crack on really well. Like, the banter’s there.” She feels herself grinning at the thought of his crooked smile, the guffawing goofiness of his laugh. “And yes, I watched more than a few episodes of Love Island, and yes it’s infiltrating my vocabulary, but I don’t think we have time to deal with that today.”

Ana Kuya gives her a sly, sparkling look. “You like him.”

“Yeah. A lot,” Alina admits. “I, uh, did a couple of doodles of him, actually.”

“So he’s a bit of a muse.”

“I mean this wasn’t high art or anything, I used a crayon for one of them.”

“So did Cézanne,” Ana Kuya says in that mild way of hers. “It’s not the medium, it’s the fact that you felt motivated to create.” She peers at Alina, reading her expression and prompting: “ But …”

“But…” She blows out a breath. “I’m afraid that at some point I won’t be enough for him.” He deserves someone perfect. Someone who doesn’t come with all kinds of baggage.

“Because Nikolai made you feel like you weren’t enough?”

Well, FUCK.

The other woman simply watches her, blinking owlishly.

“The clinic better be paying you top dollar for that kind of insight,” Alina mutters with another shallow laugh.

“To be fair, I’m not in this line of work to make bank, as one of my younger patients put it,” Ana Kuya chuckles — and the phrase makes Alina grin, imagining what Fortnite-playing, Markiplier-watching kiddo might’ve uttered it. Then the therapist steeples her hands, sobering. “Let me ask you a different question: do Nikolai and Aleks seem similar to you?”

Alina screws up her brow, shuddering as she conjures up a mental image of her ex-husband, forcing him to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the dark-eyed professor. “Not really. I’m pretty sure they’d butt heads if they ever met, even if I wasn’t in the equation.”

“So then why do you expect Aleks to behave like Nikolai?”

There’s no avoiding it — and mercifully, the therapist has seemed chill enough about the other aspects of her life that Alina finds herself saying, “Well, there is one similarity.” She fiddles with her cuffs, internally cringing. “Have you ever, er, heard of Kinkatopia?”

“Of course,” Ana Kuya says, as amiably as though Alina’s asked her if she knows where to find the grocery store.

“So then, kink stuff…”

The other woman smiles, unperturbed. “I’m generally familiar.”

Of course she is. Finding not just a decent therapist but a properly good one was her second stroke of good luck moving to Os Kervo. The first had been Mal’s offer of the spare room, and a ridiculously low rent that only swallows up half of her social security disbursement.

“Well…” Alina takes a breath. “Nikolai talked a big game when it came to that sort of thing, but Aleks … he’s pretty deep in the lifestyle. Like, he takes it really seriously.”

“How do you feel about that?” Ana Kuya asks.

“Good. Honestly, it feels sort of safer,” she allows slowly. “Like I know what I’m getting myself into. More than traditional dating, anyway.”

“And what are you getting yourself into?”

“A…” It feels weird, juvenile saying the word aloud: “…relationship?”

Ana Kuya’s blue eyes narrow slightly, her lips still curved as her steepled fingers turn to Alina. “Are you aware that you’re crumpling up like a tin can?”

Alina straightens, huffing with self-conscious laughter. “Just is it, like, okay? I feel like I need an objective party to tell me that it’s all right to date again.”

“People have started relationships in more unlikely circumstances. You have pretty keenly developed survival instincts, so I think it’s incredibly telling that you’re concerned with obtaining permission not to break things off with Aleks, but to actually pursue them.”

Keenly developed survival instincts …” Alina snorts. “Is that a nice way of calling me defensive?”

“We both know you have walls up — which, for what you’ve been through in the last year alone, makes sense,” Ana Kuya tells her with a faint shrug. “Your gut can be a good ally. Are you feeling any red flags with Aleks?”

“No — the opposite, actually. He’s encouraging me to learn, meet members of the community.” She laughs softly at the memory: “He’s all about informed consent.”

“Well that sounds like a good thing.”

Ask. Ask now. 

“Actually, on that subject…” Alina gulps, but her throat’s desert-dry, her voice cracking painfully. “One of the people he introduced me to talked about using BDSM to deal with trauma.” She worries at a loose thread on her cardigan. Fly casual. Fly casual. “Do you, uh, know anything about that?”

The other woman grimaces — and Alina’s stomach drops. “Unfortunately, I can’t really talk specifics, for a number of reasons—”

“Oh, yeah, of course,” Alina mutters, flushing.

“—but what I can tell you is that from what I’ve read, it’s commonplace for, say, a person who wields a lot of control in their day-to-day life to surrender it during a kink scene, or the inverse.”

That’s nothing new, of course — but Alina’s never really thought about it in reference to herself. Until now. 

“I think…” She licks her lips, trying to tame the words in her head. “Maybe I never cried during cancer because I couldn’t let go. Because Nik wasn’t there for me, and I knew it. And I think I’ve never really let go since then — like, I’ve never been really safe enough to grieve.”

Even the thought is heavy. Her body aches with the imperceptible weight, the burden she’s never been able to put down.

“Are you starting to feel that sense of safety now?”

“I’m not sure.” More than she did in Os Alta, anyway, like a fern starting to take root in the strange wilderness where she’s been transplanted. “But Aleks feels sturdy. Like he is what he says he is.”

“Sturdy sounds good.” Ana Kuya nods sagely. “And we’ve found some homework for our next session. What does the idea of safety mean to you, Alina?”


Safe.

She ponders the word in the back of the rideshare as it trundles through Os Kervo’s patchworked streets. Stability — that’s a huge part of it, the knowledge that things aren’t going to suddenly shift the way they could with Nikolai, a fun night turning into a tempestuous one without the slightest warning. Control over my own environment.

She doesn’t completely have those things now, but it’s light-years better than her wreck of a marriage. Better than a one-bedroom apartment that offered no refuge from Nikolai’s capricious mood swings. Even if Mal has the occasional boundary issue, she has a room of her own now, and a way to pay for it.

The rest of my finances, though… Her monthly disbursement was recent enough that she can splurge on today’s rides to and from the clinic without having to check her bank balance, but after today she’ll have to tighten the belt. Beg Genya for rides, maybe.

At least hanging out with Aleks is free. But even that brings a surge of hot recrimination, her chest corroding from the inside out. He drives her to and from Os Kervo without a single word of complaint — should she be trying to chip in for gas?

Leave that for future Alina . Just enjoy the day.

The sky is as foreboding as her thoughts, and she hunches into her coat as she reemerges from the strange car into the steel-gray day, still feeling that awful weight bearing down on her lopsided shoulders. The frozen crests of slush crunch under her boots — and as one heel skids on the ice, she’s not here, not now, but a year ago. Barely conscious, with her ribs, forehead, cheek all screaming in pain.

Her heart slams in her throat, and even though the street is silent save for the rideshare humming away, she can hear it again. Not the cartoony pow that it sounds like in the movies, but the bone-deep thud of wood striking her unresponsive flesh as she passes out, the reverberations through her bones far distant. Like she’s lost underwater, and all that furor’s happening at the surface.

Alina hasn’t moved, hasn’t gone anywhere, and the storm of remembrances passes as abruptly as it began. The horror lingers, though, clinging to her as she straightens, abruptly nauseous. The Bad Fall had been inside the apartment, at least; hell knows what damage the razor peaks of frozen ice could’ve wrought today.

Close call.

She’s barely through the front door when Mal snaps, “Another rideshare? Really? ” 

“What d’you mean, really? ” Alina asks wearily as she kicks off her boots. He’s standing at the sink, squinting out the front window, lord of his microscopic kingdom. That image is almost enough to make her laugh, but she’s too tired after therapy. “It’s not like I possess either a car or the ability to drive.”

“I just thought Genya would at least be a decent enough friend to give you a lift home.”

Her laces are tangled, and she has to bend double, awkwardly fiddling with the snarl as her head pounds. “I wasn’t out with Gen, I had a doctor’s appointment.”

Mal clicks his tongue in reproach. “Then you should’ve texted me for a lift.”

“I didn’t want to,” Alina growls. The laces are tight around her ankle like a sprung bear trap, refusing to let her do anything but hobble awkwardly, bracing her hip against the wall to keep from falling over.

“You’re on disability, Alina, you should be more careful with your money.”

The self-righteous frustration in his voice makes her draw herself back up to her full height, the room spinning as she glares in Mal’s general direction. “Look, I pay rent, my half of bills, it’s okay for me to spend the rest how I want!”

“Fine,” Mal snaps. “Just don’t come crying to me when you can’t afford groceries.”

The words hit her with visceral force — and even after he swaggers back to the living room, she can’t move. Her ears ring with an unvoiced howl as she stands there, mute save for her panting breaths, one foot still trapped in her boot as the other sock absorbs the puddling snowmelt.

There isn’t enough weed in the world to smoke this away. Mal’s words shouldn’t have mattered, but they were the worst thing to hear today, with Ana Kuya’s homework so fresh in her mind.

She wants to scream, rage, sob, because it is so fucking unfair .

I didn’t ask for this, I didn’t ask for cancer, I didn’t want to be here

Correction: she doesn’t want to be here.

And maybe, for once, there’s somewhere else to go. Someone else to go to, someone to whom she can surrender to as cracks spiderweb outward from the chink in her armor. Someone who will help her break.

One thing at a time.  

Everything moves like molasses. Sliding her foot out of the shoelace snare. Retrieving her sock from inside it as her foot tries to peel away from the cold linoleum floor, a loser’s gom jabbar . Locking the front door behind her, so that Mal can’t get on her case for that, too.

Only then can Alina shuffle to her bedroom, closing the door behind her and quietly engaging the lock. She hasn’t even bothered to take off her jacket but she does now, stuffing it into the crack between the heavy wooden rectangle and the door jamb. The television’s blaring away in the living room, but she doesn’t trust that her voice won’t carry.

She’s too keyed up to sit, frantically pacing, her remaining sock snicking wetly against the chipped wooden floor. She stops long enough to set the phone down on the milk crate, hunkering beside it to dial. Her fingers are shaking so hard that they stumble against the screen, and it takes her a couple tries to actually click on the phone number.

Alina scoops up the handset, nearly jumping to her feet again as the first ring sounds. She’s almost talked herself into hanging up by the time it rings a second time — then the line clicks and it’s too late.

“Alina.” No preamble, not even a greeting. Just Aleks’s deep, precise voice buzzing against her ear, his words reaching her through thousands of miles of radio towers and satellites.

“A-Are you busy?” she croaks.

“Yes.” Gone is his relaxed tone — the lone syllable is iron. “What’s wrong?”

She swallows hard, forcing the words through the vise of her throat. “I need your help.”

“Anything.”

But she can’t say it. Not to him, not to anyone. What if he says no? The rejection would be unbearable, and what she wants to ask is … extreme. For her, anyway. And for someone who’s so conscientious about not hurting her, it might be too far.

“I…” The word comes out as a hoarse rasp, and she sucks in a breath. “I-It’s hard to say out loud and I don’t want to text it… Can I call you back and leave you a voicemail?”

“If that’ll make it easier for you, of course,” he says after a moment’s hesitation — probably wondering what the hell is going on, but fortunately he doesn’t ask.

“Thanks.”

She clicks off without saying goodbye, crouching beside the milk crate again to redial. Then the line’s ringing a second time — and there’s no interruption. 

Eight monotone trills later she reaches a prerecorded message. That’s just as well. Hearing his voice right now wouldn’t do anything but scare the words back into the shadows.

As it happens, they don’t spill out of her so much as unfurl in an emotionally devoid procession. They’re as cold as she is. Frozen blocks floating downriver, sent off toward the horizon with only the vague hope of rescue.

Only after she hangs up does she notice the temblors running through her legs — and she collapses on the mattress so forcefully that her knee bangs against the hardwood floor beneath.

She waits, seconds oozing past. Every faint sound from the living room makes her twitch, like Mal might’ve overheard her through the television’s ruckus. Of course he didn’t. If he had, he would’ve been in here crawling up my arse.

After an eternity, the phone’s trill startles her. A text alert, not someone calling, just as she’d asked. That bodes well enough for Alina to dare to swipe the message open.

Aleks BF : I accept — on one condition. I insist on paying for your rideshare.

Is it kindness or control? At this point it doesn’t matter.

That’s the point, after all. To surrender.

Whether the door connecting her head and heart is parted a crack or flung wide, it’s open, and anything at all could happen.

Alina GF : Ok


“Here?” The driver’s head bobs, and Alina knows the woman is trying to catch the opening of the driveway in the compact car’s headlights.

“Yeah, that’s it.” Her heartbeat’s been quickening as the tiny blue car rocketed through the narrow streets — and her head sloshes dizzily as the driver slows, nearly stopping altogether before turning down the narrow drive.

Aleks’s sedan gleams just ahead of them, invisible until the compact’s headlights wash over it. Warm light glows through the window of the middle storey of the house— and Alina’s gut lurches as she finds the third floor dark.

He’s there.

The woman parks. “Here ya go.”

“Are you, um, all set?” Alina asks as she unbuckles. It’s unsettling being on this side of things, having the lift arranged by an unseen hand — but it’s gone seamlessly. All she had to do was slip out of the apartment and into the night when the strange vehicle showed up, double-checking the license plate against the screenshot Aleks had sent.

“Yep.” The woman flashes a grin over her shoulder. “Thanks for the tip, and have a great night!”

The evening wind creeps in at the seams of her clothes, but the basement door is unlocked, and then she’s inside. It’s eerily quiet as she kicks off her boots, not even the parping of the ancient cat disturbing the hush.

The main floor is equally still, the crackling of the fire in the woodstove magnified a hundredfold by the tranquility. Alina could be walking into a museum exhibit ( Domicile of the lone Homo erectus male of the Atlantic Northeast c. 2000 CE ) — until wood snaps over her head, a lone board creaking with cold.

Or with the weight of a predator, lurking upstairs. Waiting for her.

Her stomach shivers in the cavern of her abdomen, a queasy fist, and for a moment she’s convinced she’s going to be sick. Then the cresting nausea breaks, ominous heat fading to a bone-deep chill.

Alina shrugs out of her jacket as sweat beads her skin, setting it on the loveseat along with her bag. She won’t need either of those things now. Her t-shirt and leggings seem both too little and too much. She debates leaving them behind, too, but ultimately decides against it. 

The point of this is to be torn down. Debased. To be exorcised of the curse she carries, the inescapable weight that she can’t let go.

She’s aware of every creak and whisper of the wood beneath her feet. The darkness is so palpable as she ascends, she can practically feel it. Feel him — the monster. The demon who will scourge her of her burden.

He’s waiting for her in the bedroom, deathly grave, standing in the center of the room wearing a black t-shirt and joggers. His dark eyes seethe at her from behind his glasses, and the hidden sea roils inside her, howling to life at the prospect of release.

I want you to hurt me. 

I want you to spank me until I’m black and blue, until I cry because I need to cry, and I can’t do it. I can’t reach it … but I think with you I can, Aleks. And I need to. So badly.

If you can’t or don’t want to, I understand, but I don’t know what else to do. Text me your answer. Please.

Aleks is there but gone, melded with the darkness until they’ve become one. It’s as though tendrils of it are flowing beneath his skin, silken ribbons of smoke from the smoldering embers of his eyes. His silver hair glitters like mica, a fitting crown for a god of rock and ash.

He wordlessly points at the floor before him. Only now does she see the black rectangle set there, running side to side.

Alina’s legs are shaking so badly that she barely manages to sink to her knees onto the black thing, settling herself at one end, facing the other as he directs. It’s a mat, not terribly thick, but dense enough to cushion her already-bruised knee — and heat settles on the nape of her neck, shoving her down until she’s braced on her elbows, her good arm taking the brunt of her weight.

She’s never been truly afraid of Aleks. Never . Yet the way he silently heaves her hips higher, fisting her leggings and panties and dragging them down to bare the curve of her arse is merciless, twin waistbands rasping against her skin.

She hardly feels the first spank, or even the second. Even the third. Anger and shame roar through her nerves like wounded beasts, all the heavy things she’s shoved down in this Tartarus inside her chest finally gaining voice.

No . All these roiling horrors have been screaming all this time, all these years. I just haven’t been listening.

“Give me a color,” a man demands harshly.

It takes her two stunned blinks to remember. The globes of her arse tingle with warmth, but it’s not enough — she needs more. “Green.”

It starts again. The slow, wordless rhythm, each blow rippling up her spine, through her flesh. His darkness seeping through her skin, blazing deeper.

Almost. Almost there…

The wellspring inside her is cracking, shattering. Rocks groaning as the searing pain lances through Alina, and something deep inside her collapses. Tears are there, they’re coming, but they’re still far from the surface. This could still all falter.

I need more .

“A color, Alina,” the man insists again — and she rears in primal frustration, but his other hand is still there at the nape of her neck, pushing her down. “ Now.”

“Green, goddammit!” she hisses.

To her relief, the next blows fall harder. Or maybe it only feels that way, because the mortared-off fountainhead crumbles, the sea of horrors surging free inside her.

Alina heaves a weeping breath, fingers digging into the forgiving mat as she drowns in the flood.

Anger. Humiliation. Resentment. 

Months of it spilling out of her eyes, waterfalls upon waterfalls.

“Enough!” he snarls — and the world spins as he scoops her up and carries her to the bed, heaving her against his chest and cradling her in his arms. He presses a hot, sweet kiss to her forehead, and as she melts into him she can feel the fierce pounding of his heart. “I’m sorry, Alina, I can’t do this. Red.”

“I-h’it’s o-ho-kay,” she stutters through her sobs.

“It’s not okay, sweetheart.” He brushes sweat-sticky tendrils of hair back from her forehead, pressing another kiss to her crown. “It’s okay to not be okay.”

Is it the words, or the earnest way Aleks murmurs them into her skin? Either way, it’s enough to send another splintering shudder through her body, all the broken shards of herself disintegrating into oblivion.

“I’m not okay,” Alina bawls, and she clings to the dark-eyed man, trusting him to hold her together as she falls apart.

“I know, sweetheart,” he rumbles tenderly, the words finding their way through her body. He kisses her brow again, stroking her back in an endless circle, soothing her as she wails. “I know.”

Chapter Text

Time flows differently in subspace.

He is warmth, light, a black sun. She is the moon, bathed in his radiance. Glowing. Not lost, but caught in the weft and weave of his gravity.

They lie there for an eternity, his hand coasting over her back, soothing her with rays of heat. Her legs are warm, too, though she doesn’t know how. Perhaps it’s a blanket — but turning her head is impossible. She doesn’t have enough energy.

“I’m just going to take a peek.” The words slip through the universe, lingering between stars. The blanket over her body shifts, but she only feels it from across a vast expanse. Faint pressure, a far-off stinging agony, but none of it truly reaches her here. Those sensations belong to someone else. Some where else. Not this bodiless Arden. 

“How do you feel?”

It takes an eon to draw breath. “ Fffloating.

“Ah.” More caresses. Kisses pressed to her hair, arms cradling her tighter. “What do you say to a shower, princess?”

Showerrr, ” her voice mumbles from somewhere faraway.

Gentle pets that make a sea of skin pebble with pleasure. “We’re going to walk a little bit, all right?”

“Mm,” she murmurs. The universe moves around her, galaxies shifting and colliding as he slips out of the bed. Lightning cradles her, searing her body, and she settles her feet on the flat plane of the floor.

Curiously, gravity doesn’t hold her down. She rises to her feet, the dark sun shining along the length of one side of her body as his arm settles around her waist, escorting her through the endless night.

It doesn’t matter where they’re going. 

She’s not alone.

After thousands of miles they stop. He orbits her, always trailing a hand against her body, never truly leaving her. He captures her hips, drawing her forward. “Here. Find a comfortable temperature.”

She stares at the round metal device, bewildered as heat rises to sting her eyes along with her arse. She must’ve seen things like it a hundred times before, but right now it’s unfathomably alien.

“Alina?”

“I don’t know how,” she sobs as an ocean of tears brims over, drenching her cheeks.

“Oh darling…” The hand at her waist becomes an arm. “Just stand here, I’ll take care of everything.”

Water hisses, and she flinches at the sudden shift in the air, streams of cool air finding her bare skin. They’re not unbearable — and she blubbers softly, letting him lift her arms to pull her t-shirt over her head. Then her bra, drawn carefully over her injured arm so the strap doesn’t drag against her skin. Her t-shirt and underwear slide off easily, tumbling to the floor, and strong hands lift her calves one at a time to strip off her socks.

He’s naked, too, though she doesn’t know how or why. His dark eyes are kindly, holding her as steady as his hands as he steps under the cataract.

The water steams against his skin, and she’s still half-floating as he coaxes her nearer. “Lift your feet … that’s a good girl.”

Good girl. She melts into him at the words — and he holds her under the waterfall. Washes her face, gently massaging away the dried tear tracks with his thumb. Dampens a washcloth and holds it to her nose. “Blow.”

She does. There’s no embarrassment, no humiliation. He tends to her — and she doesn’t shy away. Doesn’t even draw back, simply lets herself be nurtured by the man with the shadow-dark eyes.


Alina’s starting to drift back to herself by the time he turns off the water, but she’s still too far out of her own body to do anything but sway against him. He guides her out of the shower stall, standing her on the bathmat as he dries her with a fluffy cloud of a towel.

A bathrobe wraps around her, clean socks envelop her feet. Both are comically oversized on her; she skates more than walks, his hands on her waist as he ushers her along. Together they slowly descend the stairs to the living room, him walking a step before her as though worried she might fall.

Downstairs he settles her on the loveseat, tucking her under a blanket. His eyes recapture Alina’s attention as he crouches before her. “I’m going to load the stove and get some water — just over there.” His eyes flick up, indicating a place over her shoulder, and a word bubbles up in her mind. Woodstove . “Will you be alright here for a minute?”

Alina nods, a smile claiming her lips at the woozy sensation. Her head is a liquid motion bubbler, penguins surfing in the cavern where her brain should be. She’s barely begun to get the hang of it when he returns, and somehow there’s a little table beside her as the hallucination bleeds away, waiting as he sets down a pair of water glasses.

He sinks onto the loveseat beside her in a rush of woodsmoke and spiced musk, and she snuggles into him eagerly as he draws her into his arms, settling her against his chest. He’s wearing his t-shirt and sweatpants again, seemingly comfortable as he tucks the blanket about her body. “What can I get you?”

Words elude her, but she glances at the television, then back at him. 

“You want to watch something?”

“Anything,” she murmurs, nodding as she nuzzles back into the crook of his neck — and his throaty laugh warms her as his other arm shifts and the television clicks on.


“I don’t like cuddling,” Alina finally manages when words return, iZombie chattering cheerfully before them.

Aleks’s hand freezes on her back. “Yeah, you’d said — I’m—”

“No, I mean … usually,” she cuts in quietly, and to her relief he keeps stroking her. It’s oddly hypnotic. Reassuring, in some primal way. “I like it with you.”

“All right then.” He sounds like he’s smiling, and she watches his other hand moving over her thigh, smoothing the blanket. It’s strange to watch someone who isn’t a nurse touch her body so intimately.

“Mal says I’m thorny.”

“Mal seems to have a lot of strong opinions about you.”

The words are quiet, but she can hear the iron underneath — and she draws back only far enough to squint up at him. “You don’t have any siblings, do you?”

“No — but if I did, I’m sure I wouldn’t want to cuddle with them, either.” Alina thinks he’s joking until those furrows appear between his brows. “I, too, am particular.”

“Particular.” She hums appreciatively. “That’s a good way of putting it.”

“I like my boundaries. And I like letting them down when I find someone who’s worth it.” Aleks cradles her jaw, studying her. “What happened today?”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Alina grumbles, the taste of metal filling her mouth at the memory of this afternoon.

“Alinochka , ” he murmurs, only a little reproachful.

“I…” It’s easier to look down, stare at the curve of his forearm, his elegant wrist. “I had therapy today, and money’s tight right now, and I was supposed to be thinking about what it means to be safe — and Mal was being an ass about money when I came home, so I didn’t feel comfortable there, and I just felt … so ashamed,” she admits, another flare of nausea making her shift in his arms. “I needed to feel it on the outside, if that makes sense.”

Aleks nods, his brow still half-knitted with concern. “Money stuff sucks, and it’s hard to externalize.”

“And when you’re disabled, you don’t exactly have loads of options — and other people feel really entitled to tell you what to do,” Alina adds in a resentful rush.

“I’m sorry, pet, that sounds rough.” He’s sympathetic, but not bending over backward to feel sorry for her, or centering his own thoughts. 

This feels … good?

Good. Definitely.

“Yeah.” Alina lifts her gaze to his, finding him still watching her with that same gentle patience. “Thanks for not doing the whole trying-to-fix-it thing. Which one might think you would do, being a Dominant and all.”

His full lips tilt in a crooked smile. “That’s not the kind of power exchange I’m into.”

It’s not the first time he’s said that. “What is your preferred Domming style?”

“It all comes back to this. Talking.” He grazes his knuckles against her cheek. “Understanding you, so that I can understand your needs.”

“What about your needs?”

“They are currently being met and then some,” he tells her with a grin — but all too quickly it fades to worry. “Alina, I would appreciate it if you spent the night here with me. That was an incredibly intense scene with next to no negotiation ahead of time— and don’t say I’ll be fine, ” Aleks adds sternly as her mouth pops open. “I don’t want you to be alone tonight. Not after all this.”

“You want me to sleep here?”

His full lips tighten, holding back another smile. “That would be the general concept, yes.”

Her heart slams at that. Sex is one thing, but sleeping beside another person, being unconscious, vulnerable… “That’s a big step.”

“Is it?” he asks mildly.

“Are you sure you know what you’re getting yourself into?” Alina narrows her eyes,  challenging him, but he doesn’t flinch. “What if I snore?”

“Who doesn’t?”

The fact that he’s so unflinching makes her want to needle him harder. “What if I fart?”

“Then I’ll know you’re an actual human woman and not a Cylon.” Aleks arches an eyebrow. “What, are you planning on judging me if I rip one?”

“No — but I can’t guarantee I won’t laugh.”

“Laughing’s fine.” His smirk drops as his hand finds her good one, his elegant fingers threading through Alina’s smaller ones. “I just can’t stand the idea of you crying like that on your own, trying to convince yourself that you’re okay.”

His voice is gravelly with emotion, but she can’t say anything silly to defuse the tension. Not without throwing it back in his face.

He cares about me. Really cares.

Instead she finds herself saying, “Okay.” Aleks’ grin burns brighter than the woodstove — but his beauty turns to a gut punch as she remembers: “Wait, no, I can’t — I need my meds.”

He hardly bats an eye. “We can go back to your place, I don’t mind staying there.”

“No,” Alina says quickly. The idea of him sacked out on her pathetic floor mattress instead of his own lovely home is unbearable.

“Okay. So we go to your place, get your meds, and come back here.”’

He still looks perfectly serious, even frowning as Alina snorts, “We can’t do that, it’s ridiculous.”

“Why?”

“It’s so much driving!”

“Not that much,” he says, perfectly dismissive. “Anyway, it’s Friday night. Do you have plans for tomorrow morning?”

Alina whiffs out a laugh. “I don’t have plans for, like … two months, at least.”

Aleks’s palm strokes a ribbon along her spine, his touch muted by the blue terry cloth. “Grab a change of clothes, too — I’ll take you out for breakfast.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“What did breakfast ever do to you?”

“Nothing, I love breakfast, it’s just—” She twitches her head in disbelief. “You don’t have to do that.”

“Dear girl…” Aleks sighs, suddenly sounding a thousand years old. “You’re worth so much more than you think. Certainly worth taking out for breakfast.” His irises are dark, huge as he gazes into her. The perfect place to get lost. “I've been waiting for you a long time, Alina.”

She doesn’t say anything. Just lets her hand slip through his and knots it in his hair instead, coaxing his face down to hers for a kiss that’s rough and sensual, hungry and sweet. Just like him.


In and out. In and out.

Alina doesn’t realize she’s muttering the words aloud until Aleks looks askance at her from the driver’s seat. “What exactly are you thinking about over there?”

“Not that ,” she snickers, rolling her eyes to hide her shaky nerves. “Just … go into the apartment, get what I need, then straight back out.”

“Maybe he won’t even be home,” Aleks offers soothingly — but she can already see the pickup’s butt sticking out behind the neighbor’s fence. The end flares with reflected light, cat’s eyes in the darkness.

Her stomach tenses . “He’s there.”

“Do you want me to come with you?”

For the barest instant, she’s tempted to say yes. But that’s a slippery damn slope. Say yes once and you’ll never stop saying it. And then when you’re alone again, everything will be that much harder.

The thought of her life without Aleks is a sting of agony that she doesn’t need right now — and she shoves it into the pit in her gut, locking it away for another time.

Think of something to get your head straight. Anything. Floofy corgi toe beans.

Alina shakes her head, smiling tightly. In control again. “It’s all right. I’ll be quick.”

The door is locked but not deadbolted, and she lets herself in quietly, the stinging in her arse heightened from the way she’s trying to slink along. The television is blathering away in the living room, providing at least a semblance of cover, and she doesn’t even waste time slipping out of her boots. Just creeps to her bedroom, mind racing with the things she needs to gather.

Night and morning meds. My satchel. Wrist brace. Fresh clothes. Travel toothbrush. She grabs her weed stash before any of the rest, shoving her meager collection of stuff into her jacket pocket. Hopefully there are some lines Mal won’t cross — but then again, he hasn’t reached out to ask if she’s okay. Maybe he hasn’t even noticed that I left.

She’s halfway through scrounging up a change of clothes when the kitchen floor creaks with approaching footsteps.

“Alina.”

She can sense him standing in the open doorway, but doesn’t look up. “Been thinking up more cutting one-liners? —or making up a budget for me, perhaps?”

The floor grumbles as he fidgets. “Look, I just wanted to apologize, I shouldn’t have gotten on you like that.”

Alina might believe the apology if he didn’t sound so grudging. “Yeah, you shouldn’t’ve,” she agrees curtly, shoving a pair of stretchy jeans into her battered canvas satchel.

“Can you just stop and look at me?”

If not for the note of irritation that’s creeping back into his voice, she might’ve done — but his ire whets her own, and she keeps her face downturned. Meds, clothes fuck, deodorant. “I’m kind of in a hurry.”

“What, you’re going out again?” he huffs.

Irritation sharpens her tongue. “Yes, Malyen, it is a Friday night.”

“Months of living in that room and then you vanish for a week and a half.” His stare bores into her as she shoves the aluminum-free antiperspirant into her bag, and she looks up in time to catch Mal folding his arms over his chest. “What the hell’s going on with you?” 

“Can’t you just back off?”

“You’ve been sneaky and evasive and moody…” He glowers at her, the picture of self-righteous indignation. “Alina, are you on drugs?”

What?! ” she wheezes.

“Is it heroin? Oxy? Bath salts?”

It’s too much; she starts cackling uproariously.

“You can talk to me, I can help you get help— where are you going?” he interrupts himself as she brushes past him. “You can’t just leave without a word of explanation!”

“Oh, I’m not leaving yet.” She opens the front door but pauses on the threshold, still hooting with laughter. The car’s still running, and Aleks’ silhouette shifts inside as she beckons. “Aleks, come here!”

The engine cuts, and he gets out, dark brow knitted as he strides over to join them.

“Who is that?” Mal hisses not altogether quietly. “Your dealer?”

She nips the inside of her cheek to sober up as Aleks meets them in the entryway, and Mal has to tilt his head back to glare up at the older man. “Mal, this is my boyfriend, Professor Aleksander Morozova.”

“A pleasure,” Aleks says silkily, sliding his arm around Alina’s waist.

Mal stares between them open-mouthed, his cheeks and neck ruddying. “You’re serious.”

“And now we’re leaving,” Alina returns cheerfully. “Have a good night, Malyen.”

She finds Aleks’ hand with her own, pulling him out through the open door as he calls an amused, “Lovely to meet you” back at her still-gaping friend.

Aleks opens the passenger door for her, and she watches him round the front of the sleek sedan as the rectangle of warm light in her peripheral vision winks out. He grins slyly as he slides behind the wheel, and with the thump of the closing door they’re alone. Safe . “Charming lad.”

He used to be. “Thank you,” she says wearily, fighting the urge to look back and see if Mal’s scowling out the window at them.

“Of course.”

The engine hums to life, and Alina clutches her satchel, struck by the nagging sensation that her life is reorienting beneath her. Her petrified world starting to blossom, changing into something unrecognizable as they glide away into the night.

Chapter Text

“Sweetheart, wake up,” a voice says, low and urgent. “You’re having a nightmare.”

The blankets are wrong, different, and Alina shoves herself up out of the strange pillow with a gasp. She’s soaked with sweat, and the snap of the bedside light illuminating makes her head split with pain.

Seriously, the first time we sleep together? She yanks the hem of her tank shirt higher to mop her brow, trying to steady her galloping heart as she sits up. “Fuck, I’m so sorry.”

“Oh, pet…” Aleks’s huge silhouette eclipses the electric lantern as he leans toward her. “It’s a nightmare, you’ve got nothing to be sorry about.”

“Not even drenching your pillowcase?” she asks, glancing ruefully at the one behind her that’s now wrecked.

Aleks smiles faintly. “Not even.” He reaches back to his bedside table to grab a glass of water, nudging it into her trembling fingers, his warm hands steadying her own. “Here.”

“Thanks,” she mumbles, draining half of it immediately. She hands it back and drags her tank shirt off, using the already-sodden fabric to wipe her face. At least the rest of the bedding seems to be okay. He woke me before it got really bad.

Aleks’s pupils are blown out, his jaw tight. “You okay?”

“Sorry, uh…” Alina clears her throat, but her racing pulse still makes her voice tremulous. “Hot flash. I’m more or less in menopause — that there chemo’s a doozy, kids.” The words wobble in the air, just like her hands.

“Do you want to jump in the shower?”

She shakes her head. The cabin’s air is cool enough now that she’s out from under the blanket, and a shower might only make it harder for her core temp to resettle. Fucking DDs. “I’ll be all right in a minute.” She stares down at her wadded-up tank shirt, now too damp to do anything but hang up to dry. “Um, a towel, though, if you have one…?”

“Sure thing.”

He’s out of the bed and vanishing into the corridor in the next moment, and Alina tries to collect herself as cupboard doors thump in the bathroom. It’s a mercy that the worst of the hot flash is confined to her face, neck, and underboobs, but her left arm is still ice-cold, of course — and pressing her brow to her forearm offers only scant relief. What a great sleepover buddy you are, Starkov. Full marks.

At least her wrist brace is still on. The couple of times she’s woken to find it gone, her hand bent nervelessly and the blood flow to her fingers cut off, were more terrifying than this.

Alina pinches an exposed corner of the pillow between her knees, yanking the sodden case off and then awkwardly tugging her spare t-shirt over the pillow instead. She finishes just in time for Aleks to return carrying a towel and a small swatch of something dark that’s the size of a folded washcloth.

His brows lift in the middle as he sees the t-shirt-adorned pillow. “Oh sweetheart, you didn’t have to do that.”

She takes the towel gratefully, drying her clammy skin as he pulls the pillow toward him — and she’s chagrined to recognize the other thing he’s carrying. “Look at you with your fancy pillowcases and whatnot.”

“Your bar is set incredibly low if you think clean pillowcases are fancy.”

Alina nods, indicating his still-tight expression. “You giving me that look because I spontaneously created water?” She shrugs, feigning humility. “What can I say? I’ve got superpowers.”

He still watches her, saying nothing as she tousles her hair — and she blinks at him, adopting a comically tight smile. Fuck, is he going to take me home? “It’s not gonna happen again for a bit, I promise. A watched lady never boils.”

His forehead creases, and he twitches his head horizontally. Not that, then. “You kept saying over and over that there weren't enough cardboard boxes?”

“Ah.” Suddenly she understands — and she studiously avoids his gaze as she scrubs the rest of the unwelcome sweat from her skin. “Bit of a story there.”

“I’ve got time if you do.”

Boring story,” Alina amends — but even as the words leave her lips she knows they won’t deter him. Why didn’t I bring my sleep shirt? Idiot. All this fuss might’ve been avoided if she’d just grabbed it along with the rest. “The Old Man of Wandering Mountain, I am not.”

Aleks’s mouth narrows, barely containing the smirk that’s threatening to break free. “You’re also hardly an objective critic.”

“Fine, sasspot,” Alina grumbles, mollified by the way the latter word startles him into a laugh. He settles back against the pillows, patting the bed beside him to welcome her. Already the hot flash is breaking, perspiration chilling to frost on her skin — and she crawls over to join him, tucking the towel around her breasts for comfort more than modesty.

His long arms enfold her, crushing her comfortably against his bare chest. He’s a sunbaked stone, his body solid radiating a soothing warmth that eases her in the wake of the body temp roller coaster.

“So…” Alina licks her lips, trying to figure out where the hell to start. Enter late, leave early. “My cancer treatment was just chemo at first, three days down in Boston for infusions, then three weeks back at home. Which wasn’t really time at home, because with that kind of treatment your immune system tanks every cycle. Like, a cold can kill you.” She hears, feels his sharp inhalation. “So there’s the whole run to the ER in the middle of the night bullshit if you start spiking a fever, followed by a few days in the Os Alta hospital while your immune system rebuilds. Wash, rinse, repeat.” She heaves in a breath, cuddling closer. Relieved that she can bask in his warmth again instead of shunning it. “But then after round four they started radiation, too, and I had to be down in Boston every day.”

Already it feels a lifetime away, and yet not . As though Aleks and this new life she’s living are only a veil away from that wretched place, that wretched time.

“Who’d you stay with?” he murmurs, stroking her back and making her shiver with pleasure as she fiddles with a corner of the towel.

“That’s just the thing — I didn’t stay with anyone,” she admits. “Nikolai had to stay in Os Alta for work, so I ended up splitting my time between three vacation rentals and then a non-profit lodge. The lodge was nice, but the other places…” She lifts her good shoulder in a shrug. “I had to go with wherever was cheapest, so sometimes that’d be a room or a hostel on a third- or fourth-floor walkup. And I had to lug my stuff around with me, too, so I’d be totally exhausted, living off my short-term disability and having to move every time I got settled.”

Hearing it out loud in her own voice, Alina’s glad that she doesn’t have to meet Aleks’s quartz gaze. She couldn’t bear to see pity on his face — and she instinctively forces herself to sound upbeat. Dismissive.

“So now every night I have these dreams about moving, and there’s always too much stuff but not enough time…” And I’m still sick. Still in treatment every night. “It’s stupid.”

“It’s not stupid.” His voice is reassuringly matter-of-fact, as solid as his body.

“Lame, then,” Alina allows as she traces her fingers along the crest of his collarbone; it’s a lovely distraction, grounding her here. Now. “I can’t even have nightmares about cool stuff like postapocalyptic monsters or alien planets, it’s just…” She shakes her head again. “Too many books, not enough boxes, not enough time.”

He hums with understanding, a ribbon of heat trailing down her backbone as he caresses her. “So your nights are either spent floating in space or worrying about not having enough space.”

“Pretty much,” Alina says with a weak laugh. “And then I’m awake at some weird hour for a bit. What fun.” She sighs, all out of spurious cheer as she lets her hand rest on his chest. “Fuck cancer.”

“Fuck cancer, indeed,” he agrees tightly.

Enough of that. “Sorry I woke you.”

“Alina, sweetheart, you have absolutely nothing to be sorry for.” His beard grazes her forehead as he presses a kiss to her damp hair. “It’s like you think you have to apologize for taking up space in the world.”

“The world hasn’t exactly been excited to see me coming,” Alina mutters bitterly — and then she gasps as Aleks covers her hand with his own, holding it to his heart.

I am.”

Deeper than the stinging in her arse, deeper than the labyrinth of flesh and bone, she aches . For decades she’s been alone. Even married to Nikolai, deep down she was locked away in a coffin of iron desolation. But with those two words, it creaks open the barest crack — and he’s there on the other side. Hand held out to her, if she’s brave enough to take it.

I've been waiting for you a long time, Alina.

Suddenly she needs Aleks. Needs to be full of him, claimed by him, so thoroughly caught up by his body that time can’t ravage her mind.

Alina draws his hand to her breast, nudging the towel aside and cupping his hand to the bare swell.

“Be careful.”

His voice rumbles through his chest, thunder on the horizon. Alina hides a grin. “That sounded like a warning.”

“It is.” His cool tone belies the way his heart’s drumming faster — and when she lets her hand fall away, his own lingers against the curve of her breast. He teases her nipple with soft authority. “You just had a bloody night terror.”

“And now I could use a distraction.”

She glances down just in time to see his dark boxer briefs twitch as his thumb spirals around her areola in beguiling strokes. He doesn’t move to stop her, but his huge body stiffens as her fingers skate down his abdomen, fingertips alighting on his hardening length.

“I could just … y’know … put this in my mouth and see what happens,” she murmurs, tracing the outline of his cockhead through his dark cotton boxer briefs.

He abandons her breast to catch her wrist. “I’d have to insist that you sit on my face before putting your lips anywhere near my cock, my dear.”

Excuse me?” Alina giggles — and she looks up to find his lips curved in a roguish smirk that makes her heart skip. Sixty-nining?

His lips curve in a wicked grin. “It’s time someone took you in hand, Miss Starkov.”

“Hmm…” She lifts her hip, indicating her tingling arse. “I thought you did that this afternoon.”

“Speaking of…” Aleks’ bravado ebbs, genuine concern radiating through the mask of Dominant energy. “How are you feeling?”

“Tender, but good.” Alina offers what she hopes is a reassuring smile. “I’ll live.”

Just like that his grin returns — sweet and dangerous, his dark eyes glittering with hunger. “Good, then.” He slithers down in the bed, settling his head on the pillow, and glances up at her. “If you’re waiting for an invitation, this is the only one you’re going to get.”

Alina tosses the towel aside, heat flooding her sex as she wriggles out of her underwear, comfortably naked once again — but she wrinkles her nose as she stares down at him, envisioning what’s to come. “I don’t like having my arse up in the air.”

“Give me a color.”

She snarls internally, crushing her mouth to a bloodless line as she regards him. It’s a squick, not a trigger, and it’s like he knows that as he peers innocently up at her. “Green, Daddy, ” she finally growls.

Aleks grins. “Then up you get, bratty miss.”

His hands settle on her legs, guiding her over his face, and she braces herself against the mattress with her good arm. Her knees frame his face, his beard scratching her inner thighs as he plies her skin with soft, wet kisses.

“Give me your weight, you’re not going to squish me,” he murmurs into her crux.

She doesn’t want to — the thought of him wheezing underneath her makes her cringe, but a gentle tap on her aching arse sends her sprawling onto him. His fingers tighten on her thighs, and her spine arches as he licks into her — and she’s relieved to find his huge cock there before her face.

Alina doesn’t bother teasing him, just kisses the dull head of his prick and draws him into her mouth. It’s a relief to suck him, the perfect counterpoint to the glorious torment in her cunt as he laps at her folds, favoring her clit with attention from his circling tongue.

And he’s right — his breathing stays the same as she lies on him, his body helping her brace, and she grips the base of his shaft as she leans onto him, forcing him deeper into her throat.

Aleks growls into her pussy — and she moans in response as he slides his fingers into her, the hint of pressure at the back of her slit making it easy to imagine that she’s being defiled, filled, fucked.

“Daddy, I want your cock,” Alina whines as his ministrations grow demanding, the ecstasy building in her belly.

He prints a kiss on her inner thigh, his fingers pushing into her in a hungry rhythm, unceasing even as he speaks. “You have it, princess.”

“You know what I mean!”

Aleks chuckles quietly, his breaths luffing into her wet pussy. “ You want my cock, I want to choke you a little. The problem with wanting is that it makes us w—”

“Done,” Alina gasps quickly, before he can take it back.

God, yes. The thought of those huge, graceful hands wrapped around her throat makes her eagerly scramble to the side, tumbling onto the bed beside him.

Aleks’s dark eyes burn into her as he props himself up on his elbow, wiping his mouth on his forearm. “Your boundaries are … uniquely intriguing.”

That faint squint again, his quartz pupils squaring as a tiny crease appears between his brows. Like he can’t quite figure her out.

“Oh come on,” Alina huffs playfully, “you did say choke me a little , not fuck my unconscious body.” She grins as his mouth pops open in shock. “Though I did like it when we did that before.”

Aleks shakes his head in amusement, and pats the bed beside his torso. “Lie here, my little monster.”

She turns around, lying beside him, and he nudges her over onto her stomach. Her head’s settled comfortably on the pillow, turned toward the cubicles of brightly-colored ropes — and she whimpers with need as Aleks settles his legs between hers, his erect cock leaving wet trails against the backs of her thighs.

He’s covering her body with his larger one, not exactly lying on her but trapping her down against the bed, closer than spooning. She mewls, dizzy with excitement as he notches his cockhead into her dripping crease. What the fuck—?

“Hush now, milaya .”

Her good hand is folded under her body, but she twists her fingers into the sheets as his hand settles on her hip, holding her still. 

Now please please please

Aleks grunts into the nape of her neck as he thrusts into her, claiming her cunt in one smooth stroke.

Fuck, ” Alina hisses, but he doesn’t move. Just stays there, letting her body get used to the overwhelming intrusion of his cock, his heart thudding against her spine.

A bladed hand shoves under the plane of her stomach, finding her mound and pushing lower to settle on her clit. She’s transfixed on him, his girth stretching Alina to her utmost, and her pussy clamps tight around his length as he caresses her.

His other hand slides higher, lingering to fondle her breasts. His touch is rough, lazy, a predator taunting its captive prey as she trembles with lust.

Aleks eases out of her almost completely before slamming deep again, inhaling like he’s drinking in her scent as she writhes beneath him. “You have the tastiest little kitty, Alina.”

What? ” she gasps, but the word draws out in a blissful cry as he fucks into her again.

His fingers slip around the peak of her clit in practiced circles, forcing her soft walls open with every harsh trespass — and he laughs breathlessly. “You heard me, pet.”

He pumps into her faster, harder, the ridges of his glans rubbing against secret places deep inside Alina. She groans with rapture, lifting her hips to give him better access, and the hand at her breasts skims higher, fingers wrapping around her throat.

His hold is firm, the pressure light, pulsing. 

“Surrender,” Aleks rasps — and Alina goes limp in his arms, letting him take control.

Even lying still, her muscles respond to the way he’s working her, pistoning deep in her cunt as his fingertips swirl against the slick nub of nerves at her apex. It’s brutal and tender all at once, the older man straining into her hollow, forcing himself against her cervix as she quakes beneath him.

She nips at the fresh pillowcase to ground herself, but it’s no use. Every incursion presses her closer to the blinding verge of her orgasm.

“See, Alina?” he rasps into the nape of her neck. “Even like this you can’t keep me out.” He slows, driving deep until she moans. “This pussy belongs to Daddy now.”

Those words alone could make her swoon. 

Aleks… Daddy… 

Alina whimpers as he snaps his hips, the wet slap of his flesh colliding with hers distant through the blood singing in her ears. He fucks her urgently, primally, coaxing her bliss higher until there’s no escape but to shatter around him.

Her pussy clenches with euphoric violence, the spasms redoubling by the way his cock is sheathed in her. His pace quickens as his hand returns to her breast, clutching at her hungrily, gracelessly — and he pants as his thick length claims her in agonized thrusts. “ Moya printsessa …”

“Come inside me, Daddy,” she whispers, the words throaty with desire.

Aleks gasps, his movement stuttering as he crests — and he thrusts deep, his body gives a tectonic shudder of pleasure as he floods her with his spend.

God — fucking — damn, ” he manages as more of his cum paints her inner walls, and she groans happily. His cock is stoppering the load inside her, but she can feel it leaking out of her with every breath, heat trickling out of her overfull cunt. It gushes out of her as he ebbs only to delve deep again, and Alina moans at the wretched sensation of dripping . “Good girl, Alina.”

Holy shit that was so good.

After a suitable period she extracts herself from his embrace and hurries to the Room of Requirement, but she’s drenched pussy to ankle, rivulets of Aleks’ cum racing down the inside of her legs.

She stares down at his semen, simultaneously entranced and horrified by the way it stains her skin — and with a glance to make sure the door is closed and locked, she drags her fingertip through a wet ribbon and takes a tentative lick.

It tastes like cum. Nothing unusual or outlandish, just a burst of sour on her tongue. She smirks to herself. Next time I’ll suck it out of him. Wonder what he’ll make of that.

Her reflection catches her eye in the grand rectangular mirror hanging over the sink, and she turns, lifting her flank.

Her arse is painted black and blue, freckled with crimson splotches of broken capillaries. She gingerly runs her hand over her bruised skin, hissing at the stinging heat her soft touch evokes, but a curious pride wells up in her anyway.

Submission looks good on me.

Alina returns to the bedroom clean and dry, if still sore inside and out. Her pussy and arse chide her with every step, but Aleks is propped against the headboard, sitting up as he waits for her — and she returns to him eagerly, crawling into bed and letting him spoon her as she resettles the brace on her wrist.

He prints a kiss on the curve of her neck. “How was that for you?”

“Amazing,” she sighs, wriggling her hips back until her arse nudges into his lap, his knees tucked tight behind hers. “You?”

“The most amazing girl I’ve ever met let me hold her down and raw her in my bed, with a side of choking for good measure.” Aleks chuckles softly as he draws the quilt back up over their naked bodies, draping his arm over her waist. “If not for your nightmare I’d call it a perfect evening.” He must feel her drawing breath to apologize, because he adds, “And if you say I’m sorry I’ll pinch your bum until you squeal for mercy.”

Alina snorts with laughter, but the world’s already growing fuzzy with exhaustion. “Fine. I’ll just say goodnight , then.”

He kisses her bad shoulder, and even though it’s far distant, she can feel the tenderness in it. “Goodnight, sweetheart.”

A click of the light and then it’s dark again — and even Alina’s numb arm feels warm for once as she drifts back to sleep in Aleks’s embrace.


“I’ll have the cupcake French toast with a side of bacon and a hot chocolate.”

The waitress only nods, scribbling down the order on her notepad. “Whipped cream on the hot chocolate?”

“Yes, please.”

“Sprinkles on the French toast?”

“Please and thank you!”

“You got it.” The woman doesn’t even look back at them, just turns and navigates her way through the crowded restaurant with Starbuck-level ease.

Alina glances back at Aleks to find him studying her, his glasses sharpening the intensity of his dark gaze. Her stomach twists. “What?”

“Just wondering if you’re secretly a Little.”

She snorts with laughter. “Oi, not all of us are so adult that we must drink our coffee black, Daddy .”

Even though she says the last word quietly, his eyes flare with warning, and she mouths an embarrassed sorry . The hole-in-the-wall diner is stuffed with booths, all of them full — and though the chatter of conversations and dishes is nearly earsplitting, it’s not impossible that someone might overhear.

“Perhaps not, but most of us do prefer some coffee in our creamer.” Aleks’s mouth tightens, like he’s only allowing himself a faint smirk as he nods to her blonde coffee and the incriminating pile of empty single-use cups.

She sticks out her tongue, and he rewards her with a dimpled chuckle, the flash of his grin making her thighs tremble before he checks his phone. The things he can do with his mouth … and his fingers … and his cock, holy hell

“Um, speaking of roles” —Alina stirs her coffee, pale clouds billowing up from unseen depths with each swirl of her spoon— “I wanted to ask … d’you think I should update my profile page on, er, that website we both know?”

Aleks looks baffled.

Kinkatopia, she mouths, cupping her hand in case of lurking lip-readers.

His frown deepens. “If you’d like.”

“Oh.”

Recognition washes over his chiseled features as he abruptly lowers his phone. “ Wait, you mean relationships and all that.”

“Uh, yeah,” Alina says, melting against the hard booth in relief. This is stupid this is stupid what are you doing ?

“Well then.” He leans forward, setting his cell aside and steepling his fingers. “What would you like, Alina?”

“You mean you’re not going to tell me where we stand, O Domtastic One?”

“I don’t want to dictate this kind of thing.” Aleks cocks his head to the side, his eyes sparkling with interest. “Anyway, I’d rather hear what you want, straight from those very talented lips.”

Fuck, how does he have me grinning every two seconds? “Um, well…” She tugs at her pink hat, trying to think. “For the relationships part, maybe … in a relationship? —or dating?

“Hmm.” His expression clouds. “ Dating feels too casual.”

Oh. Heat rushes to her sex, and she shifts in her seat, trying not to beam like an idiot. “So in a relationship?

“I’m happy with that if you are.”

“Yeah. Definitely.” Now she does grin stupidly, delighted to see his goofy smile in response. “And for the, er, other relationship type?”

Aleks picks up his phone again, tapping with his thumbs, and it’s Alina’s turn to stare in bemusement. Until her own phone buzzes.

Aleks BF : For our D/s dynamic?

He meets her gaze and she nods. Barely breathing, her heart squeezing insistently as he taps out another message, then calmly sets his phone on the table again.

Aleks BF : It depends on what you’d like your role to be, Miss Undecided. From my perspective, Submissive, Brat, or Princess might be appropriate.

Princess? ” Alina half-screeches — and thank fuck it’s not an indecent word on its own, because now eyes do turn to them. Aleks roars with laughter, pearly teeth glinting as she crumples with embarrassment. Why can’t I keep my big trap shut?

“I suppose that answers that ,” the dark-eyed man says when he can speak again.

“You mean you don’t want me as your—” She breaks off, glancing around to make sure everyone’s gone back to their own business before making bunny ears with her good hand. Rope bunny?

He laughs quietly. “In time, absolutely. But for now…” Alina’s heart stutters under the force of his onyx gaze. When he picks up his phone again it takes all her composure to sit still, waiting for her phone to ping.

Aleks BF : Do you want to be Daddy’s little brat?

Alina nearly drops her phone. Saints, fucking YES!

Warmth cages her hand, steadying the electronic brick — and he arches an eyebrow, admonishing her over the tangle of their fingers. “Careful, darling.”

She sets the phone down on the sugar-sticky tabletop as he releases her, bracing it against her bad arm as she swipes a quick reply.

Alina GF : And you’re going to put that on your profile, too, *Daddy*?

He gives his phone only a cursory glance. “Absolutely.”

Alina scowls at him. “You didn’t even look properly.”

“I did. Are you surprised that I’m agreeing?”

“I mean…” She flicks her tongue over her lower lip, as startled by the question as his own laidback answer. “…yeah? You’ve hardly had a moment to think it over.”

He shakes his head, the picture of haughty indulgence as he smirks across the table at her. “Like I haven’t been thinking about it since the first time you used that word.”

“Well fuck me,” Alina blurts out.

“Oh shit,” an unfamiliar voice says over her shoulder — and she turns to find a trio of youths lurking beside the booth divider, clogging the narrow aisle. They’ve got to be in their early twenties, flush with the excitement of their first independence.

Aleks seems to recognize them, because his cheeks color, too. “Good morning, Pavel.”

“Hi, Professor,” the young man returns with an awkward bob of his head. His companions seem to know Aleks, too, because they offer halting waves of greeting from behind the leader’s shoulders. “Sorry to interrupt, we just wanted to stop by and say hey.”

“Ah, well then, hey, ” Aleks says with an agreeable smile — and then to Alina’s horror, he gestures to her. “Pavel, my girlfriend Alina. Alina, Pavel is one of my academic mentees, and a repeat offender in my advanced media analysis section.”

“Nice to meet you.” The words come automatically, and the three kids mumble hellos, a hoodie-clad Greek chorus.

“Wow, girlfriend? That’s mega,” Pavel marvels to Aleks, but something about his tone makes Alina’s gut twang with warning as the kid turns to her. “Hey, be nice to Professor Morozova, this dude’s been through it.”

“Of course,” Alina says, frowning, but the boy’s already turning back to Aleks.

“Catch you later, Prof.”

With that they’re gone, slipping toward the door and out into the midmorning sun.

Alina peers at Aleks. “What did he mean, about you having gone through it?”

For the first time this morning, the silver-haired man looks uncomfortable. “I try to keep my personal life from ever spilling into my professional one, but it’s a small town. Hard to keep things entirely to yourself.”

Luda. I’m a fucking idiot. “Got it.”

A moment later the waitress returns with their food — and then Alina’s too busy laughing at Aleks’ expression as he beholds her frosting- and sprinkle-adorned French toast to worry about the pain of the past.

Chapter Text

The French toast turns to a rainbow-flecked lump of coal in Alina’s stomach as she stares at the apartment’s front door. The purring of Aleks’s car is so reassuring that it seems impossible to abandon its sanctuary for the cold silence of what lies beyond. 

Not to mention abandoning the dark-eyed man himself.

She can feel him watching her even as she stares at the door, its chipped white paint adorned with a hem of muddy salt. “Guess I’d better go straighten things out with Mal.”

“You’re sure you don’t want me to come with you? Not that I think you need my help, but…”

She shakes her head, hoping she doesn’t look too mournful as she turns back to Aleks. There’s no trace of anger on his perfect features, just concern, his brows rising in the middle as he gazes at her.

“He’ll be a dick, but it’ll be all right—And don’t look at me like that, I didn’t say it would be fine!” Alina adds quickly as his face shifts , his expression becoming stern, dark eyes probing her.

“Semantics.” He cages her good hand within his own, squeezing gently, his touch as insistent as his gaze. “Please promise you’ll tell me how everything shakes out.”

“I will.”

“And if for any reason you need me to come back, don’t hesitate.” Aleks lifts his hand to cup her cheek, drawing her in for a lingering kiss that makes her wonder if that isn’t exactly what he wants.

“Drive safe,” Alina mumbles, her lips burning as he prints another kiss on her forehead. “Let me know you got back okay.”

His brow knits as he studies her again, his thumb softly sweeping against her cheek. “I’m more worried about you.”

“Yeah, well I’m more worried about you .”

Aleks catches her chin fondly. “Brat.”

“You haven’t tamed me yet.”

“I’m well aware.”

Alina nuzzles into him, and the dark man’s mouth slants over hers hungrily, his beard scratching her skin — and he inhales sharply as she strokes her tongue against his, holding her as close as the center console will allow.

Finally, gently, he pushes her away. “Go. Don’t look back.”

The words are ragged with emotion, and she doesn’t look at him for fear she’ll disobey. Just hurries out of the car and up the walkway, the sedan growling louder as she unlocks the front door and closes it behind her.

Alina hesitates in the entryway, scenting the intangible wind. Mal’s bedroom door is closed, the music thudding loud enough to rattle the glasses shelved on the shared wall. She waits five seconds, ten, but nothing changes. No footsteps thump across the room toward the door.

At length she dares to slip out of her boots, stowing her bag away behind her bedroom door. Her fingers stumble as her heart thuds faster, knowing what she has to do. No sense putting it off. She won’t be able to relax, not really, until they’ve had this out.

The music drops when she knocks, but it isn’t until she raps a second time that weight shifts beyond the door. Alina skitters back as lumbering footfalls trace a path toward her. 

The door pops inward, and Mal glares peevishly through the gap. “Oh, so now you have time to talk.”

Any hope she’d had of talking things out slips away at his tart tone. The iron walls in her mind slam back into place and she lifts her chin, trying to glare back just as coolly. “Yeah, actually.”

A long pause drags out between them.

“So d’you have anything you might want to say to me?” Mal demands.

Alina’s pulse hammers with resentment, and she tastes iron. He’s expecting me to apologize. “How about what you might have to say to me?

“If you’re waiting for an apology, I wouldn’t hold your breath,” he drawls sourly, rolling his eyes.

The breath explodes from her in a furious huff. “You were literally coming to me to say you were sorry for being a dick, and then you were a dick all over again!”

“You hid a whole-ass boyfriend from me!” Mal snarls.

“I didn’t hide anything! Besides, when I did try to tell you about him, you accused me of being on drugs and very loudly asked if he was my dealer .”

“Yeah, well, look at him.”

“I look at him quite a bit, Mal, and nothing about the man says I sell drugs, ” Alina hisses, folding her arms over her chest the best she’s able. She’s scowling so deeply that her vision is squared, the world twitching with her heartbeat.

 “He’s, like, a thousand years old,” he sneers, his features limned with disgust.

A thousand? “He’s forty-five!”

“Can you not do math? That’s fifteen years older than us.”

Contempt drips from his every syllable, stoking the fire in Alina’s chest until it blazes azure with the force of her fury. “And being as how boys my own age are as emotionally mature as sippy cups, I’m quite happy with that.”

Mal sniffs, shaking his head dramatically. “Of anyone you could’ve rebounded with, I didn’t imagine you’d bone a fossil.”

“Why are you so concerned with who I’m boning?” Alina snaps. “It’s not like I’m ever going to fuck you.

Mal’s mouth pops open, and for a long moment he just gapes .

Then his mouth snaps shut with an audible noise, hollow and harsh, the opposite of a bottle being uncorked. He stomps back into his bedroom, the door shouting at her as it slams shut.

Alina stares after him, stomach churning as the music thumps to life again.

What the fuck?


Sunlight turns Genya’s hair to liquid copper as she shakes her head, her lips drawn back over her teeth in a pretty grimace. “The very biggest of yikes, babe.”

“Tell me about it,” Alina sighs. Genya’s room is surprisingly comfortable for a furnished basement, let alone a bedroom. The exposed beams are rustic rather than raw, the ceiling low but not enough so to feel stooped. The rectangular space is divided between a cramped pseudo-living room, where a futon faces a smallish flatscreen, and the bed with its built-in bureau underneath. The posters splashed across the walls are still vibrant, even though the bands and movies they depict are at least a decade old, and the narrow windows at the top of the room admit enough light to keep the space cheery.

All of that notwithstanding, Alina’s heart and spirits remain firmly entrenched in a pit. She buries her face in one of the small army of mismatched throw pillows that surround them on the futon, wishing she could will all this away.

“The idea that I could ever think of him that way…” she groans, the words muffled by pink plush fabric. The memory of hunching in her bedroom all day yesterday, darting out to pee or grab a snack when her body’s clamoring became unbearable, makes her shudder. “I can’t believe that’s what he wants.”

“Men are vile, confirmed,” her auburn-haired friend agrees as Alina heaves herself back upright.

“I wanted him to give me away at my wedding.”

“And instead he wants to give you his penis,” Genya adds smoothly.

“Which I have accidentally seen before, since we grew up together! ” Even the thought of being with Mal, of him touching her like that , is enough to make her gag melodramatically. “Gen, he’s like a brother to me.”

Genya’s eyes twinkle with cursed mirth. “If you’re going to be Cersei Lannister does that mean we get to drink wine around the clock? How do we feel about corsets, yea or nay?”

“Oh, shut it,” Alina grumbles goodnaturedly. She’s already writhing internally at the thought of having to creep around on eggshells when Genya drops her back. “I just have to avoid him until this all blows over and he comes to his senses.”

If he comes to his senses.”

That stings — and Alina’s eyes flare wide with hurt. “Thanks for the optimism.”

“I favor realism, darling,” Genya says gently. “If I was an optimist I’d be a lot more convinced I’ll escape my parents’ basement. In a non- Born of Man and Woman sort of way.” Her tepid smile fades quickly, and her hands twist in her lap. “And honestly … Mal has always made me a teensy bit uncomfortable. Have you noticed how often he talks over you?”

What the actual fuck? Alina knows she’s gaping just like Mal had, but she can’t stop herself. The idea that there’s some kind of pattern, something Genya’s seen but she herself hasn’t, makes the world lurch.

“You genuinely don’t have hope for Mal, do you?” she asks quietly.

Genya raises one perfectly-shaped eyebrow. “Are you blaming me for not putting my faith in him over my worry for you? Because I have precisely zero regrets about that, my love.”

“You and Aleks are both acting like Mal’s going to beat me up.”

Genya’s hesitation speaks volumes. “Being a shitlord about who you’re dating isn’t exactly a mark in his favor,” she says finally.

It’s not like I’m ever going to fuck you .

Alina had tossed the words off so unthinkingly, the way she would’ve done to Nina, Genya, Inej. Well, maybe not Inej. But to the others, certainly — and they wouldn’t have taken offense. Not to that degree.

“I hate this,” Alina mumbles, slumping against the back of the futon.

“I bet.” Genya’s gaze flits around the homey basement. “If the bathroom situation wasn’t already rough here—”

“Don’t you dare apologize,” Alina says quickly. “Not for any mess I’ve gotten myself into.” The beaded sleeve of Genya’s sweater catches the late afternoon sun — and the thought hits her like a physical jolt: “Actually, I could really use your help with something Aleks-related, if you’re free?”

Genya perks up. “Of course, darling!”

“Clothes.” She knows she’s a shabby sight in her leggings and baggy tees, and Aleks deserves more. At least once in a while, it’d be nice to feel truly pretty . “I don’t have much to work with… Where do I start?”


Headlights paint the nighted street amber, and Alina’s heart flutters in her throat, but the car passes by without stopping. Peering out through the kitchen window is the only way to watch for Aleks; it’s a relief that she’s home alone, but that won’t last forever.

Alina’s barely begun to relax when something brushes her thigh, and she twitches in alarm — but it’s only the unfamiliar outfit. She stares down at the clothes, still not totally sold on the things Genya had hauled out of her own closet before dressing Alina in them and dropping her back at the apartment. 

The black sweater isn’t bad, even with the girly thing that Genya called a Peter Pan collar, but the high-waisted miniskirt is … tight. Not forgiving the way her leggings always are, but firm as Aleks’ hands. Unrelenting. And for once there isn’t the hem of a boxy t-shirt to cover her arse.

The skirt is clearly meant to draw attention, with a wide, flashy silver zipper that slices up its front, its pentagram pull tab tinkling just below her navel. Slim polyurethane leather suspenders that seem more ornamental than functional dangle outside her thighs, and she balls her good hand into a fist, resisting the urge to drag them up over her shoulders.

“Leave them like that,” Genya had chided, slapping Alina’s fingers away when she tried to pull them up the first time — but then she’d winked. “It’ll make him think of the rest coming off, too.”

Of course, all of this primping will be for nothing if it’s Mal who gets here first. The thought of crossing paths with him is enough to make her stomach turn, and she worries at her ragged thumbnail with her teeth.

I should put my leggings on, at least. Running around without even the sense to wear tights seems like asking for trouble, even if they’re bundled up in her bag. Still, she’d promised Genya she wouldn’t put them on, not without letting Aleks at least see her like this.

Any minute now … any second… 

Alina’s heart skips as more amber lights bathe the street, and this time there’s something else, too. An orange light that flashes brighter as its unseen source nears.

Mal wouldn’t use his directional.

She scampers back to her bedroom to grab her satchel, but by the time she reemerges he’s already parked at the curb, his lanky form striding through the shadows to the front door.

Fuck. In her distraction, she’d forgotten to mention that Mal wouldn’t be here. That she didn’t need backup like before.

There isn’t even time to grab her coat. Her socks slip on the smooth floor as she skids to meet him, dragging the door open as he raises his hand to knock.

“I’m so sorry, I didn’t think—” she blurts out, but the startled expression on his face makes her break off.

“Wow. I, uh…” He swallows hard, and Alina can tell it’s taking an effort to focus as he lifts his gaze to meet hers. “ Wow.

“If you don’t like it I can go change,” she teases, straightfaced, but he catches her wrist as she turns, stepping over the threshold to join her.

“Don’t change anything. Not a thing.” He leans down, bringing his lips to hers, and even the frigid night air becomes nothing. There’s only the heat of his mouth sealing against hers, his tongue parting her lips and his sweet taste filling her mouth as he kisses her.

The door frame nudges against her back — and then, as if remembering himself, he straightens.

“Sorry I didn’t remember to tell you that you didn’t have to come in,” Alina mumbles through lips burning for more.

“Oh, I don’t mind.” His gaze is already darting about the kitchen, taking it all in.

“Well, since you’re here, um … tour’s considerably shorter.” She shuts the front door and gestures around awkwardly. “Kitchen, obviously. Bathroom through there, living room over there. Mal’s room — though he’s not home. Yet.”

Aleks doesn’t catch the hint, instead walking toward the only door she hasn’t indicated. “And this, I would imagine, is your room.”

“Or a closet,” she deadpans.

“Oh.” He blinks, taken aback. “Um—”

Alina grins. “I’m just having you on. Might as well be a closet, though, it’s really not much to look at.”

He shrugs diffidently enough, but his eyes sparkle with interest. “I’d still like to look — but only if you don’t mind.”

“You’ve been inside my vagina, I don’t mind showing you the inside of my room.”

Jesus, Alina,” he wheezes, startled into laughter.

It feels better to see him chuckling, scandalized. Anything but pitying as she reluctantly swings the door open, revealing today’s nice clothes for the farce they are. “Sorry.”

Aleks frowns in confusion, like he doesn’t understand why she’s abashed to reveal how humbly she lives compared to him. “Sorry for what? I’m the trespasser.”

“It’s nowhere near as nice as your place.” Alina whiffs mirthlessly. “For starters, you actually possess a bed frame.”

“Kink purposes aside, bed frames are overrated. And sweetheart, when I was your age my room looked like this, too.”

“Did you just when I was your age -me?” Alina demands as he slips his arm around her waist.

“To be fair, it’s completely distracted you from trying to apologize for your own existence,” he purrs, and his low voice makes her clench around nothing.

“You know what else would distract me?” The door frame had felt good against her back, and she steps back against this one now, bracing herself as she lifts Aleks’s hand to her throat.

To her annoyance, he only catches her jaw, his fingers steel as he regards her. Forcing her to tilt her head back. “Ah, but for a little brat, choking isn’t a punishment, it’s a reward.”

“I dressed up for you and everything!”

Aleks chuckles softly. “Good looks and good behavior are two entirely different things, pet.”

Alina gapes at him in outrage, teeth gently clicking together as Aleks tilts his hand, forcing her chin higher.

“But yes,” he allows after a few indignant heartbeats, “you’ve been very good, and you look good. And you agreed to spend the night with me again.” He seems thoroughly pleased with himself as he stares down at her. “I suppose a reward is in order.”

His hand wraps around the column of his neck, warm and steady, and when his lips brush against Alina’s she can feel him drinking her in. Delighting in every soft movement, stepping closer to nudge his leg between hers, pinning her to the door frame.

Faint tremors run through the wood, and she can feel as well as hear the front door being dragged open by someone from without.

Mal.

She whimpers with worry, but Aleks doesn’t flinch. Just presses a gentle kiss to her forehead as he lets his hand fall, not a shred of guilt in his eyes. “It’s all right, love. We’re leaving anyway.”

They’re still standing like that, bodies pressed together as Mal stomps into sight, tracking snowy bootprints across the linoleum floor. He freezes, glowering as he sees them. “Oh. You’re here.”

“We’ll be out of your buzz cut in a minute,” Alina says lightly, but she pleads with him with her eyes. It doesn’t have to be like this, Mal. Say something nice. Anything. Just throw me a lifeline.

He looks away, refusing to meet her gaze as he toes his boots off one at a time. “Don’t bang the front door when you come in, I have an early shift tomorrow.”

The last sprig of Alina’s hope withers. “Lucky you, then. I won’t be back tonight.”

“Weeknight sleepovers, huh?” He glances at her, but his eyes are hard. “Must be serious.”

“It is,” Aleks says, and even though his voice is soft his gaze is adamant. The tension in his jaw only eases when his eyes find hers again. “Shall we?”

“Let me grab my coat.” Alina can feel Mal’s surly gaze between her shoulder blades as she ducks back into her room to swing her jacket over her shoulders, only noticing too late that her satchel strap is running under the coat instead of over it. Doesn’t matter, I’ll fix it in the car.

Aleks reemerges back into the night first, and Alina pauses on the threshold, turning back to give Mal one last chance. “Do you have anything you might want to say to me?”

He thinks for a long moment. “No. You?”

There’s nothing else to be said, and the night air is stinging her legs. Forcing her to choose between them — though in truth, it’s no choice at all. Not with how Mal’s been acting, and the fact that Genya’s seen it, too. It’s not just in my head. “Have a good night, Mal.”

There’s none of the same gleeful sense of escape as last time, the feeling that she’s slipping out from under a heavy thumb. Something is shifting, it’s true — but it’s tectonic, a balance still unsettled. The final design unclear.

Sorrow travels in joy’s wake. Hidden behind it, eclipsed by the light. That’s one thing Alina knows to be true, one thing her life has taught her again and again. And as she follows Aleks toward his waiting car, for the first time a pang of worry runs through her, wondering what’s coming. What Aleks’s beauty might be blinding her to as he leads her into the darkness.

Chapter Text

Dark grey lines feather from the tip of the pencil as Alina shades the valleys of Megachonk’s fur. She’s drawn the two cats like Yin and Yang, tails coiled about each other’s heads, bodies swirling about each other like furry teardrops.

For her part, Mrs. Bates is being an obedient model, flopped comfortably on her side on the other end of the loveseat. Aleks’ feet are propped on the arm of the little couch, the university laptop that he always carries settled on his thighs, bright screen reflected in his glasses.

It’s so domestic. So comfortable .

Life’s never this easy.

Alina picks at thoughts until her mind is a maelstrom of worry, drowning her where she sits. Finally she just blurts it out: “Am I here too much?”

Aleks glances up immediately, the wrinkles in his brow deepening to canyons as he scowls at her. She’s beginning to understand his expressions more, parse the minute differences between scorn and worry. Scorn seems reserved for the darkling side of him, the Dominant she only occasionally sees. The rest of the time, like now, it’s him being solicitous. “Absolutely not. What would make you think that?”

“I was here Friday, Saturday, then now…” Alina gnaws her lower lip, bouncing the pencil against the clipboard eraser-first. “I don’t want to impose, if you need space to work—”

“I have plenty of space in my life, Alina.” His concern melts away as he smiles. “I like you being here while I grade papers — and I appreciate your patience.”

“Maybe after you’re done grading papers you could grade me on a few things, Professor.”

He sucks a breath between his teeth, wincing. “That’s not really my thing, pet.”

“Right, sorry.” She almost doesn’t push it, but then the question is there on her lips: “Can I ask why not?”

“Of course.” Aleks leans back from his laptop, giving her his full attention. “The student-teacher relationship is one that’s … sacred to me. I’m always so conscious of not overstepping in my work life, I couldn’t let my guard down even in my own home with a willing participant, if that makes sense.”

He almost seems apologetic — and she chews her lip again, thinking. “Would it be the same with a coworker?”

“Another professor?”

Alina gets up off the couch, and thankfully he makes room for her on his lap, setting the open laptop aside on his desk as she takes its place on his thighs. She steals his glasses, her eyes immediately starting to water as she shoves them onto the bridge of her nose. “IT department, how may I help you?”

“Interesting.” His hands swallow her hips, steadying her as he studies her, and Alina’s heart pounds insistently as she returns his glasses to their rightful place. “Tell me more.”

“Um…” Nothing too complicated. “So maybe, I’d, like, show up to help you with a network connectivity issue, get lippy—

“A stretch for you, I’m sure,” Aleks interrupts, caressing the prominences of her hips with his thumbs and making her giggle.

Now who’s getting lippy?”

He rolls his eyes, grinning as she fixes him in a playful glare. “Go on.”

“—and you would take it upon yourself to help me fix my attitude,” Alina finishes. 

“How would I do such a thing?”

“I’m open to suggestions, brat tamer.” She pretends to think, drawing out the moments as his hand strays along her bare thigh and his cock twitches in his trousers, rousing against the curve of her ass. “Rope, I’d certainly hope.”

Aleks cups her cheek, and the pad of his thumb strays along the line of her lower lip. Then he pushes deeper, filling her mouth and caressing her tongue as she instinctively sucks. “What would you say to a gag in this pretty little mouth?”

“A ball gag?” she splutters around his thumb, and he chuckles, withdrawing.

“More like a bit made out of rope. You’d have to knock on something in place of a safe word.”

“Sounds cool, but I’d drool on it,” Alina says ruefully as his soaked thumb drags against her cheek.

“And yourself.” His lips tilt up as his gaze flits down. “You’d probably make a mess of this very nice sweater.”

“You could always be nice and take it off me first.”

“Whyever would I do that?” Aleks murmurs.

“Hmm.” Sorry, Genya … and Cthulhu bless washing machines. She bats her lashes at him, goading him on. “Would you want to spank me?”

His teeth glint like pearls as he grins, a wolf in his lair. “Probably.”

Maybe she shouldn’t be greedy, asking for more when her arse is still tender to the touch — but she hasn’t been able to stop wondering ever since she held one in her hand. “What about those little stick thingeys?”

His dark eyes are liquid with hunger. “Evil sticks? Are you sure?”

Alina nods eagerly.

“Let me see your arse.”

She waggles her eyebrows. “Let me see your hardware first, Professor. One professional to another.” His huge hands move to the catch of his trousers, and she stops him, giggling. “Sorry, l mean your actual hardware.”

“My tower?” Aleks demands warily.

The computer’s off right now, which allows for one truly bratty possibility — and Alina smirks. “Yup. This is going to be an immersive experience.”

“I’m not sure I like the sound of that.” He narrows his eyes, searching Alina, and for a few seconds she thinks he’s onto her. Then he nods. “Okay I do — really — like the sound of that, actually.”

Alina’s smirk broadens to a grin. Hell yes . “So, er, when you’re done with work—”

He reaches back, slamming the laptop shut without turning away from her. “I’m done.”

“Bullshit,” she snickers.

“Is that how you speak to a coworker?”

Adrenaline gooses Alina’s heartbeat, and she straightens. “Oh shit, you’re actually ready?”

Now it’s Aleks who arches an eyebrow, the faint movement making her lower belly go taut with desire. “You tell me.”

“What a big evil stick you have, Daddy,” Alina purrs, rocking in his lap as he throbs.

“Fuck, Alina…” He gently pushes her to her feet, rising with her. “I have to get a few things from upstairs.”

“Take your time.”

As soon as his footsteps creak in the bedroom overhead, she scrambles under his desk, moving carefully so he doesn’t hear what she’s up to. It’s awkward, but only the work of a few moments to wiggle the power cable out of the back of the CPU, settling the fat plug among the other cables so it looks like nothing’s amiss.

Then she hurries back to the loveseat, heart slamming as she resettles herself on the cushions. Mrs. Bates hops off the couch with a blatt of protest at the furor, her fur rumpled as she stalks off toward the basement.

The stairs creak with footsteps descending from overhead, and the breath goes out of Alina’s lungs as she turns to find him standing there watching her. He’s not wearing his same graphic tee as before, but a button-down shirt and khakis, and a herringbone vest that shows off his lithely muscled torso.

Fuuuuhuuuck, ” Alina says, the word drawing out from the way her mouth is hanging open.

He grins, cheeks flushing beneath his beard as he rejoins her and she stands to meet him. “You did say you wanted an immersive experience.”

“Wow, um…” Alina twitches her head, trying to shake off a thousand lustful thoughts at once. The neat line of buttons down the front of his vest is just begging to be unfastened. “Okay, so I think I just figured out why you’ve been single.”

He folds his arms over his chest, his quartz stare pinning her feet to the floor. “And why’s that?”

“You have absolutely zero idea how hot you are.”

Aleks bursts into laughter, the burgeoning tension between them only heightening with the goofy way he snorts, straightening his vest. “Yes, clearly that’s my problem.”

“If you’re reacting like this hearing it, then, honestly? Yeah.”

It’s simply adorable how he shakes his head, brushing off her words as flattery. His silver-shot hair flashes under the soft lights as he wanders toward the computer chair. “I’m assuming you want me here.”

I want you all over me. Inside me. I want my skin to smell like your scent, your sweat, your cum, your musk — “Um, yeah. And you might want to move that,” Alina adds, nodding to his work laptop.

Aleks sets it aside on a nearby table before dropping into the chair with a lusty sigh.

Here we go. Alina bites back a grin as she consults her clipboard. “So, Professor Morozova, is it? Room 1113?”

Aleks’s grin widens. “ Doctor Morozova, actually.”

“It says you’re having trouble—” Alina pretends to check her clipboard again, glancing at the swirl of graphite cats. “—getting your tower to boot? That means start up,” she tacks on with a patronizing note that’s sure to rile him.

His eyes glitter, black ice. “Yes, I’m aware. And yes, I evidently am.”

“Could you try turning it on for me, Doctor?”

Aleks looks less than amused as he leans forward and pantomimes pressing the PC’s power button.

Perfect . Alina shifts her weight, inhaling through her nose and glaring at him, telegraphing flat displeasure. “The first step is to actually press the power button, Doctor .”

A tendon ticks in the hollow of his jaw as he lurches forward a second time, jabbing the power button with his forefinger — and Alina clamps her lips tighter as the languid irritation on his face drains to genuine bemusement.

“Huh. Okay, can I have a seat to check it out?”

She pitches her voice kindly this time, if efficiently, and Aleks mutters a baffled, “Er, sure,” before relinquishing the computer chair.

Alina slips into the seat and puts on a good show of pressing the button herself and hmmph ing as it doesn’t work. The older man’s eyes burn into her spine as she pushes back from the desk and hunches on her knees in the footwell, careful to keep her skirt tucked modestly around her thighs. “Well here’s your problem, Doc.” She grabs the loose end of the cable and holds it up, lips tilted haughtily as she looks back at him. “Wasn’t plugged in.”

“Ah.”

She shoves the plug back into place, shaking her head in mock disappointment as she reemerges from under his desk. “That’s the problem with you eggheads, never stopping to check the basics.”

“Egghead. Really.”

The way he’s just standing there with his arms folded, looking unimpressed as a Witcher, goads her into beaming cheekily. “Might want to get your money back from whatever scam university gave you that degree, Doc.”

He grunts.

“Just you wait ’til I tell the rest of the department about this, they won’t stop laughing for—”

“All right, that’s enough,” Aleks snaps. One hand lashes out, the heat of his hand sliding down the front of her skirt as he catches her by the waistband, dragging her forward. 

She stumbles against him, hard , but he’s unyielding as a brick wall. She widens her eyes, hoping she looks appropriately startled as she cries out, “What the fuck?

Aleks’s other arm is already lashed around her waist, pinning her against him. “Ever heard the phrase your mouth is going to get you into trouble?

“Y-Yeah?”

His lips curve in a cruel smile. He’s so close, binding her like a serpentine tree. “Well, sweetheart, today’s that day.”

The older man’s lips crush hers, his kiss commanding every fiber of her attention as he pulls her close enough to make her spine creak. He nips her lower lip, and Alina draws back with an exhilarated gasp as she tastes blood. “You bit me!”

A tendril of his silvering hair falls over his forehead as he bares his teeth, the grin savage. Hungry. “Better than washing your mouth out with soap.”

Aleks shoves her down over the desk, and her pussy tightens with anticipation — but he only holds her there, drawing her hands forward across the flat expanse of wood. He ties her wrists together with a length of ink-black rope that appears from nowhere, pinning her down with his body as he works.

Alina’s grateful that her face is turned away, because she can’t hide her smile of excitement. Guess he was doing more than getting dressed up there.

He grunts against the nape of her neck, leaning further, and then suddenly she’s tied to something, the trailing lines of rope anchored to something just out of sight behind the desk.

Only one thing could be that fixed.

Holy fuck, I’m tied to the wall!

“Now, I’m going to put this in your mouth — so be sure to tap the desk if you go all red in the face,” Aleks murmurs silkily, holding the cylinder of wrapped black rope in front of her face. A silicone bar runs through the middle of the bit like a core, and a single line trails from each end. “Open.”

Alina shakes her head, squeezing her lips into a bloodless line as she feigns reluctance.

“Don’t make me do this the hard way.” The words buzz against the shell of her ear, making her skin pebble.

Then he pinches her nose shut.

Alina’s heart slams in her ears, her pulse singing — but eventually she has to open her mouth to breathe. When she does he pounces, nudging the bit between her teeth, drawing the lines taut against her cheeks and knotting them behind her head before she can shake him off.

It’s exquisite . The rope is soft in her mouth, the wrapped bar thick enough to wedge her mouth open, yet not so wide that her jaw aches. He leans around her to look, and even though his expression is still grave, she offers a tiny nod to let him know she’s okay.

More than okay. Powerless. 

Power ful.

Aleks caresses her short hair. “I do love this. Makes it so much easier to do what I want with you.” He kisses the apple of her cheek, just above the line of rope. “Knock on the desk if you’re feeling red- faced.”

Not a safe word, but a safe knock. It’s good enough, she can accomplish it easily — and she laces her good fingers together with the nerveless ones, refusing to let him think she’s anywhere close to literally tapping out.

His bladed hands shove under her body, fondling her breasts as she whimpers into the bit. She shakes her head, thrashing beneath him, but his hips are pinning hers to the edge of the desk too firmly, and the wrist ropes are inescapable.

“Don’t like that, do you?” he croons, kneading her through the sweater, his touch ruthless. “Pretty little things like you should learn to speak to others with respect. Because if you can’t, then wretched, horny men might tie you up and punish you for your insolence.”

Saliva pools in her mouth, soaking the rope and starting to trickle past her lips as Aleks straightens, his hands sliding down to her hips. Fuck!

“Let’s see what you’ve given me to play with.”

He unzips the skirt, peeling the taut fabric off her legs and casting it aside as cool air assails her skin. 

“You little whore,” Aleks breathes — and from his admiring tone, she’s reasonably sure he’s staring at the tiny black thong. “Tell me you didn’t wear this for me.” He chuckles, the sound languid. Cruel. “Oh, that’s right. You can’t. And these bruises…” Alina moans into the bit, the sound muted by the wet rope as he squeezes her bruised ass. “Only a slut would wear marks like this.”

She’s laid out too perfectly to turn, but his hands skim lower, tracing broad ribbons of heat over her bare skin from hip to ankle and back again. Alina shivers, going up on her toes as her cunt squeezes with need, and his fingers tighten on her flesh.

“You can’t escape me that easily, Alina.”

She murmurs as his touch becomes harsh, possessive. The soft sound of his kisses matches the wet sensations on the back of her thighs — and she shrieks into the bit as he bites the curve of her arse, her legs, lingering before releasing each mouthful of her flesh.

Then he traces his nose along the drenched crotch of her thong, and she stills, panting quietly as his beard tickles her crack.

“How many letters are in the word egghead, Alina?” The words are so soft that she barely catches them, too lost in the feather-soft pressure running along the length of her slit.

Seven, asshole , she tries to say, but it emerges through the sopping bit as, “Hffnn, iffhll.”

“Seven in egghead , seven in asshole .” Aleks chuckles icily as he straightens behind her. “Did you think this was my first time interrogating someone who’s wearing a gag?”

Fhhk ,” Alina groans.

“Did you have anything else to add?”

She shakes her head, electricity crackling through her nerves as she pretends to act defeated, hanging her head and staring down at her interwoven fingers.

“Good. I expect you to be on your best behavior.” He strokes her hair again, his fingers tender as his voice is cold. “And if not … well, I don’t mind finding other ways of disciplining you.”

She feels truly naked as Aleks moves away, behind her but low, his heat simmering over the backs of her calves and thighs. He shuffles with something, and then palms the cheek of her arse — but only for a moment.

The first flicks of pain sting like chillies, tolerable until the tiny shockwaves ripple wider, joining and surging in powerful crests. Soon it’s a blazing vortex of anguish, pulling every ounce of her awareness back into her skin.

Alina loses count after six. There’s only agony, a surging sea of it within her arse and the backs of her thighs — and she’s left shipwrecked on the sand bar of his desk, gasping and spent.

Was it an ocean of torment or an inferno? It’s different than spanking, different from the punishing bruises that still bedeck her skin, but still ethereal in its beauty.

“Now, then.” Aleks sounds thoroughly pleased with himself, crowing as he caresses her backside and she gives a shivering whine. “Not a lion after all, but a palm-top tiger.”

Her back arches violently as he slides one finger along her crease, the thick digit finding no resistance as he teases her swollen folds. “You’re dripping, Miss Starkov. I almost don’t need to use this.” The bottle of lube clicks against the desk as he sets it down beside her bound hands. “But I will anyway.” He hesitates, the cold mask slipping. “Unless you’re allergic…”

Alina shakes her head as he trails off, the question implied.

“…in which case I will .”

She nods her agreement, spit trickling down her chin as the rope bit stifles her giggle.

The symphony that follows makes her thighs quake and clamp together. The jangle of his belt buckle, the burr of his zipper, the squirt of the lube. Quiet clicking and a grunt as he greases himself. He slings one arm under her hips, lifting her — and then he’s at the rim of her pussyhole as she shouts into the bit, the broad tip of him stretching her open.

Aleks takes his time, working his cock into her so slowly that all she can do is tremble, tighten, gasp. A few sharp thrusts as he seats himself inside her, and his honeyed chuckle as she writhes is pure evil.

His hard cock shifts in her belly as he leans over her again, pushing the hem over her sweater up to bare her bra. He drags the lacy cups down, tugging her nipples and rolling them between his fingers and thumbs — and she groans as he starts to move again, fucking deep into her pussy, his sac wetly slapping her clit.

He shoves deep, spitting her on his length, taking his time as she groans with the racing fullness. When he pulls out, her hands move, too, her wrists still tied together but no longer tethered to the wall. Now it’s Aleks to whom she’s anchored, the trailing lead gripped in his fist like a leash as he drags her to the loveseat, splaying her over his lap. 

He ducks under her bound arms, and she groans as her clit grinds against the base of his shaft. He’s soaked with lube and her arousal, but he only hisses, busying himself with looping the hem of Alina’s sweater over the nape of her neck like a shrug, dragging her bra down to free her breasts.

“Now where were we?” he murmurs into the column of her neck.

Livid heat pools at her hips as he reclaims them, cradling her arse and mounting her on his raw, soaked cock. She pants shallowly, so focused on his length inside her that even the rope bit becomes nothing, just a thing to cling to as he ravages her.

“Are you proud of yourself?” Aleks growls into her cheek as he bounces her in his lap — and though she is truly, perversely satisfied, she shakes her head. “Good. But I’m going to come inside you anyway.” Alina gives a trilling murmur, clenching about him so fiercely that they gasp together. “That’s right, kitten, you’re going to take every drop.”

He fucks up into her in a ravenous rhythm, throbbing in her core. Fracturing her open with each blissful invasion, splintering her until molten pleasure pours through her cunt.

“I hope you’re not coming right now,” Aleks rasps. His tempo slows to long, aching strokes, giving her every inch of his length as she tremors around him, lost in rapture. “What a slut you’d have to be to orgasm on a stranger’s cock, without even a condom to keep you safe.”

Alina heaves a sobbing breath, helpless in the dark man’s arms as he defiles her. He’s thick, throbbing, hard as steel in her belly — and she clamps around him in little bursts, pussy fluttering as he fucks into her with growing urgency.

“Fuck, I’m close.” Aleks’ lips graze her neck in a distracted kiss, and then he’s clutching her against his body, grunting as he nears. “Oh fuck —”

His orgasm is a frenzied rush of heat, hissing breaths as he snaps his hips, impaling her on him a few harsh times before stilling.

Alina’s grateful that her arms are around his neck as she sags against his chest. His tweed vest rasps against her aching nipples, but there’s nothing lovelier as she sinks into him. Shit … have I ever come that hard?

Aleks slumps back against the couch, drawing Alina with him — and the ropes against her cheeks tug a few times before going slack. Her jaw responds creakily as he slips the bit out from between her teeth, but it’s no worse than she’d feel after giving him a blow job.

Aleks ducks his head, demanding her gaze as he peers at her through lust-fogged lenses. “How do you feel, sweetheart?”

Her tits seem to have taken the worst of her drooling, but the fabric at the nape of her neck is damp. “Genya’s gonna kill me.”

“Nothing detergent won’t get out.” Aleks pauses. “Best have it off, though. Just in case.”

“In case of what?”

“In case I prefer you that way,” he says roguishly, and Alina giggles, gasping as the reverberations make his cock twitch inside her.

He unties her wrists first, touching her palms, her fingers. Squeezing and testing, seemingly untroubled by the way he’s slipping out of her as he softens. “Feel all right?”

“Yeah.”

Aleks grabs a fleece throw from the back of the loveseat, wrapping it around her nearly-naked body and cuddling her close. Experience has taught Alina that she needs to clean up in a relatively timely manner, but she forces herself to wait a minute. Enjoying each moment of Aleks stroking her back, her thighs.

Then he gently taps her arse, chuckling as she winces. “Right, pull yourself together, Starkov. I’ve got a special aftercare surprise — and it’s a whole different sort of immersive experience.”


Alina arse stings with reproach as she stares out the window, a palpable force field of wintry chill tingling against her face. “This is batshit.”

“It’s not batshit,” Aleks scoffs.

“It’s in the thirties!

The dark man sets his glasses on the window sill, seemingly unbothered by the cold even though he’s naked save for a towel. Surely he can feel it, too. “Pet, I do this all the time.”

“Aleks—!”

Cold air rushes into the house as he drags the door open and scampers outside onto the porch. There’s the flash of his towel as he tosses it aside, a splash — and then he’s sitting in the hot tub, raking his wet hands through his hair.

He doesn’t say anything else, but his grin is invitation enough.

The cold boards rebuke her bare feet as she trots out to join him, but she pauses long enough to trail her fingers through the water.

Aleks looks stricken as his gaze drops lower. “Oh shit, your arm—

“If it feels weird I’ll get out. I promise.” She drops her towel with his and climbs into the square tub, humming with satisfaction as the bubbling water enfolds her body. “Hi.”

“Hi.” Even better than the hot tub’s embrace is Aleks drawing her into his arms as the water fizzes around them. She hisses as his thighs nudge up against her injured arse, and though his lips are tilted in the ghost of a smile, his eyes are somber. “How was that for you?”

Her rear is a thousand stinging pinpricks, but the water and the protective way his body is curled around her soothe her as she squints up at him. “Is this part of the aftercare? A rigorous survey?”

“It’s aftercare for me,” he says, his smile widening as he jostles her playfully. “Talking so we know what worked, what didn’t. So I know I didn’t truly hurt you.”

Alina traces her fingertips through his scruff, mapping the topography of his face.  “Everything worked for me. I loved the just lube it up and stick it in bit,” she giggles — then quiets as worry lashes through her nerves. “Did-Did you like it?”

“Thoroughly. Seeing you laid out on my desk like that…” Aleks trails off with a groan, his arm tightening around her waist.

“Good?” she ventures.

“Hands down the best use that desk’s ever seen. And that bit with the power cord? Bloody brilliant .”

He’s so fucking … effusive. As different from his Dominant mask as sun and moon. His happiness fills her, and suddenly she’s grinning until her cheeks ache. “Glad you liked that touch.”

“The sight of your bruised arse raised up for me like that, your pussy literally dripping…” He shakes his head, visibly awed as he blows out a breath. “That’s going in the spank bank forever.”

Something thrums deep inside Alina, and she tears her gaze away from his, forcing herself to look away as she resettles her arm across her thighs. “Be careful, that’s a big word to be throwing around.”

Forever? I mean it.”

It’s probably ridiculous to make a sticking point out of a single word, especially after such a wonderful play session — but that buttheaded instinct rears up in her again as she stares down at the roiling water. “Things don’t last forever, Aleks.”

“No, but neither do any of us.” His thumb scrawls circles on the outside of her thigh, his voice humming through his chest. “And when it comes to Sasha Morozova’s Vault of Pervitude, that image will last as long as there’s any spark of life left in me.”

There it is again — the sense of shifting . Sand grains pouring through a four-dimensional hourglass, gravity shifting, urging her closer against Aleks as the world spins.

“In a more immediate sense of time, what are you doing next weekend?” he asks as she nuzzles into the crook of his shoulder.

Alina shrugs her good shoulder. It’s nice to have the scarred one pressed against Aleks’s chest, leaning just so to keep her clavicle from popping. “The usual nothing.”

He cups his palm, letting it fill with water and pouring it over her right arm — and she sighs with pleasure as hot rivulvets trace their way over her skin. For once she isn’t worried about being too sweaty, too clammy, too wrong . She always feels torn between ice and fire; this place is all the more comforting for it. “Come to the Hallow Masquerade with me. It’s on Saturday, we can make a weekend of it.”

Alina screws up her face and strokes his chin pensively. “A slumber party, you say.”

“I think you’re supposed to stroke your own chin,” Aleks chuckles. “And yes, I suppose so. All the videogames and kink your twisted heart can stand.”

“Count me in,” Alina murmurs happily. She hasn’t thought of it save in passing since Baghra mentioned it, but the idea of going to a kink community event with Aleks is…

Too good, too good, too good

All that much further for the other shoe to drop

“And you’re sure this isn’t … too much?” she adds quickly, doubt slithering in her gut at her brain weasels bleating her worst fears.

He studies her. “Too much what?

Space . It’s what Nikolai had always wanted, always needed. To not be smothered by her. “Too much me .”

“Alina…” 

Nausea creeps up her throat as Aleks hesitates. Even as he rubs her shoulder, the silence dragging, bile stings at the back of her tongue.

“I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but I’m not sure I could ever get enough of you,” he says softly. “Let alone too much.”

“Oh.” She can barely hear her own voice over the water’s cheery roiling, but Aleks must because he resettles her naked body against his, cradling her closer.

Just paranoia. That’s all it is. Alina swallows hard, shoving the unwelcome terror back into the nothingness where it belongs. She’s so used to everything being wrong, at least one thing in her life is going right — and she lets herself melt into him, suspended in the perfect place between light and dark.

Chapter Text

Aleks is on the verge of sliding into bed that night when he abruptly stops, fingers flexing tighter on the quilt. “Be right back.”

He’s out of the bedroom in moments, rounding the corner and out of sight as Alina scowls after him. The bathroom door clunks shut and water sings through the pipes, the sound muffled through the wall — but it’s distinctly the sound of the tub faucet, not the sink, that he’s turned on.

What the hell?

The trumpeting roar that follows leaves Alina wheezing with laughter — and she flops back on the pillows, not even bothering to hide the way she’s cackling. The water cuts, and Aleks appears in the doorway a few moments later, beyond chagrined. “So you … uh … heard that, huh?”

“I think they heard that in Os Alta,” she snickers, tears of mirth squeezing out of the corners of her eyes and running down her cheeks.

Aleks shakes his head as he flops down on top of the blankets in defeat. “I was trying to be polite.”

“Oh, you were — but to be fair, I did say I’d probably laugh.”

“At least you know I’m not a Cylon now,” he sighs.

Alina runs her fingers through his hair, and he nuzzles into her touch. “You really don’t have to go out of the room in your own house to rip one. I’m familiar with how bodies work. Ask my official butt inspector.”

He looks up at her sharply. “You have a butt inspector? —and it’s not me?

“Her name’s Mika,” Alina explains as another wave of giggles hits her. “She was one of my nurses during cancer. I had this … thing happen—”

Aleks rolls onto his side, propping himself up on his elbow as his brow wrinkles. “Thing?”

Welp, you got yourself into this one . Her cheeks flush with heat as she scrabbles for the right words. “My in-butt kinda, like … ripped a little? Like, I’m okay now — everything’s fine at the mill — but I definitely had to drag myself to radiation one day and ask if anyone felt like spelunking.”

“Aww, poor Alina butt,” Aleks croons, his hand settling on her arse cheek and caressing her tender skin. The evil stick’s bites are sharper, lasers compared to the achier floodlights of pain from his spanking, but she murmurs with pleasure at the interplay of sensations. His touch is both stirring and soothing, his strong fingers kneading her into a languid haze.

“Just picture it,” Alina laughs quietly, “me, up on all fours on a bed. This tiny nurse hunkered behind me, glasses and face shield on, head lamp shining bright as she checked the status of my brown dwarf star. Both of us trying not to howl with laughter.” She shakes her head, sighing ruefully at the remembrance. “Twas the stuff of National Geographic that day.”

“Only infinitely more terrifying,” Aleks mutters.

“Honestly?” She lifts a shoulder. “It really wasn’t at the time. There were a couple weeks of morphine and sleeping and peeing standing upright, but mainly I played Diablo III and watched The Last Jedi a bunch.”

“And got a lot of blood drawn and all that,” he adds, his dark eyes troubled.

“Yeah, but that’s nothing,” Alina says. “You get so desensitized … sometimes I’d fall asleep during it. ”

Warmth pools on her skin as he cups her face, his thumb sweeping over the swell of her cheek. “You’re amazing.”

“No, the techs are amazing,” she counters, instinctively if gently. “The nurses, doctors, workers who sanitize the rooms … everyone. Like, people don’t just work in oncology because it’s a job — they’ve all known someone. Lost someone. They genuinely care so much. When I was an admin, it was like here are your tasks, now go do them. But nursing…” 

Alina shakes her head, her gut strangling as she thinks of the worst moment, the night that heralded the beginning of the end with Nik. She’s grateful for the way Aleks slides his arm around her waist, pulling her closer to surmount the chasm between their bodies.

Her gaze drops to his throat, studying the hewn line of his clavicle, the lean sweep of his neck. “What the hell prepares you to sit with a patient who’s utterly alone in the world, bawling her eyes out because she just found out her husband’s cheating on her?”

Aleks’s hand freezes against her back, and when she looks up his eyes are flared with horror. “Oh Alina, no .”

“With my friend Zoya.” She lifts her shoulder in a weak shrug. “Ex-friend to go with the ex-husband, I guess.” The words are matter-of-fact, emotionless as she adds, “A lot of people cheat when their partner’s in treatment.”

“A lot of people don’t, ” Aleks snaps, so sharply that it makes her twitch. Then he smooths the back of her t-shirt, running his palm down the length of her spine, and she relaxes as he shakes his head. “Sorry. I just…” He clears his throat, his gaze still hard. “It bothers me deeply that someone could ever think of doing that to you, Alina. Let alone that they actually did.

All Alina can do is shrug again. “Bad luck, I guess. But I’d take one good CNA over ten Nikolais, any day.” A smile tugs at her lips. “Not to mention a good boyfriend instead of a meh husband.”

He tilts his head, on the verge of smirking. “ Am I a good boyfriend?”

She could make a sassy comment, try to be funny to hear that goofy, perfect laugh of his again. Honesty is harder, if simpler — and she tucks a tendril of sterling hair behind his ear so that he’ll see her perfectly as she says, “Yes.”

Alina hasn’t slept in Aleks’s arms enough to know for certain, but it feels like he cradles her extra close that night, his breaths warming the nape of her neck as she spirals into slumber.


The destination sign on the bus is written upside-down and backward — and that’s what makes the nightmare crack like an egg, releasing her to the waking world with a gasp.

Aleks is watching her from beside his bureau, fully dressed in khakis, a button-down shirt, and a navy sweater vest. His slicked-back hair gleams like he’s even taken a shower, and she blinks at him as her heart thuds faster. Three times now she’s spent the night at his house, and all three times he’s already been up when she awoke — but this is by far the most egregious. “Oh shit. How much did I oversleep?”

“You didn’t.” He sits beside her, his weight bowing the mattress, smoothing the blanket over her legs as she scoots upright. “What would you think about staying here today?”

He can’t be serious. “Without you?”

“I’ll be done with my work on campus by the early afternoon, so unless you want to go back to your place…”

Alina rubs her eyes, trying to shove her brain into high gear. “What would I … do?”

“Sleep. Raid the fridge. Use my tablet if you feel like doodling — I’m told the art app is pretty decent.” Aleks smiles crookedly as he admits, “I mostly use it for minifig mockups.”

Alina fiddles with her wrist brace as she thinks. She could stay here. 

She could

It’s not like there’s any reason for me to go back home. Even in her mind the last word jangles strangely, and her gut rocks with the sense of being adrift.

Things were supposed to get better when she moved in with Mal — and for a time they were. The idea of spending a whole day at someone else’s house would’ve been unthinkable a few weeks ago, but now the idea of sanctuary is too tempting to pass up.

And Aleks is so damn calm , just watching her as she chews a ragged spot on her lip. “Are you sure?” she asks, wincing from whatever unseen is about to spring shut around her.

“Alina…” He catches her hand, pressing gently, urgently. “I won’t ever offer something like that if I’m not sure.”

“Um…” Why does this feel sus? “…okay, then?”

He tilts his head, studying her through his glasses. “Is that a yes?”

“Yes,” she mumbles, still inwardly braced for him to take it back. 

The dark man only leans forward and presses his lips to her forehead in a sweet kiss. “Go on, then. Back to sleep with you.”

“Yes, Daddy,” Alina yawns, settling back in the bed.

His teeth glint in the dim light as he grins, and he tucks the blankets around her body. “Sleep tight, sweetheart.”


She dreams of a theme park that’s closed, of wandering through its shuttered streets, gazing up at the crazed architecture that defies physics. At one time this place had been teeming with strangers; their delighted screams filled the air as roller coaster cars jumped between sections of track divided by mawing gaps.

Now it’s silent. Still.

A steep trail leads her down to a hidden beach, one that reshapes itself around her, sprawling out to the horizon on three sides. At other times this has been the harbor where she grew up — sailboats tethered along the docks, surging in the unsettled water like bucking horses, ribbons of seafoam trailing from their noses. Today it’s simply sea and sky, an ellipsis of broken pilings trailing away into the choppy water.

And ahead of her, the storm. Always. It pours through the crack of the horizon, bruise-dark clouds and crimson helixes exploding overhead, crawling closer as she watches.

What time is it? She can’t find her phone, and she hasn’t thought to wear a watch. Surely it’s getting close to five, and she can’t miss the bus, otherwise she’ll be walking back to Keramzin in darkness dragging all of her belongings. It’s too much to carry alone.

Loss. Why does she feel it so keenly, a knife lodged in her chest? There’s something she’s forgotten, something that’s been taken from her. She won’t find it here, and there’s still that same darkness creeping beneath her skin…


Waking is a mercy, even if Alina’s heart immediately sinks as she remembers that he’s gone.

“Aleks?” she calls, just to be sure, but her tentative cry is greeted by silence.

She scoops up his pillow and inhales, savoring every lingering trace of his scent. It was him that she’d forgotten in her dream — and the brain weasel of superstition gnaws at her mind, trying to convince her that something’s going wrong.

Everything’s okay. He’s not going to get in a car accident, he’s not going to get hurt. He’ll be back soon.

Terra incognita or not, some parts of her morning ritual remain the same. Tossing back her four-pill breakfast remains unchanged — and just in time, too, judging from the clamminess that’s unfurling over her skin. She won’t be able to shower until they kick in, so she hunts down the socks that she kicked off during the night and pads downstairs.

It’s eerie at first … and then liberating.

No neighbors. She peers out the windows on all sides of the house, reassuring herself that the only things in sight are the clearing and the trees. The houses that flank Aleks’s are lost behind forested walls, and after another once-around to be sure that she’s truly alone, she fetches her hoodie and dugout.

Alina’s instantly grateful for the fuzzy hood as she steps onto the porch beyond the kitchen, huddling near the snoring hot tub to shelter from the breeze. It’s refreshing to only hunker because of the frigid wind, not a disapproving housemate or nosy neighbors.

Shadows shift at the edge of the deck, and Mrs. Bates emerges from a tiny A-frame cat house, tail twitching as she stretches her hind legs. She wanders over to Alina, bleating hoarsely, and Alina alternates hits with head scritches. Birdsong echoes through the trees, and the occasional pop of melting ice makes them both jump, but otherwise it’s utterly hushed.

“I could get used to this kind of quiet,” she tells Mrs. Bates — but the ancient cat only stomps over to the kitchen door, parking herself beside it and refusing to do anything but twitch her tail until Alina heads back inside, too.

She shakes off the chill as she hunts down a bowl of cereal with almond milk, then settles herself on the loveseat. Aleks’s tablet is on the other cushion, and Alina regards it like a fer-de-lance as she balances her cereal bowl in her lap. That didn’t end up there by mistake.  

What’s more, it isn’t just a good tablet — it’s a great one. And Alina doesn’t even have to touch the thing to see the tip of the matching stylus poking out from its case.

“Maybe later, you,” she tells the tablet.

Between the sunlight that pours through the southern windows and the banked woodstove, it’s snug in the living room. Aleks’s smart television responds to the same app as Mal’s, and within minutes she’s scrolling through the thumbnails of his channels. Fuck, he’s got everything.

Suddenly, desperately, she wishes he was here. All she’s ever wanted was a little sliver of space like this, and now that she’s got it — even knowing for a few scant hours — she only wishes she could share it with Aleks.

Her first impulse is to text him, even though there’s no way he’ll be able to respond. Instead, she finds herself calling Genya, who answers on the second ring. “Good morning, my love!”

“Ask me where I am.”

“Where … are … you?” Genya asks warily.

“I’m alone in the woods.” Mrs. Bates leaps up onto the other end of the loveseat with a blatt, and Alina pinches her phone between her shoulder and her ear, scooting the tablet out of the way just before the old cat throws herself down on the cushion. “Well, mostly.”

“Is that a cat?”

“Yep.”

“What are you doing in the woods with a cat? —wait, shut up, are you at Aleks’s place?” Genya demands, her voice rising half an octave in excitement.

“Yep.” Mrs. Bates headbutts Alina’s nerveless hand, bonking hard enough to rattle her whole arm, and she stifles a giggle. “Guess who isn’t here?”

“Okay this went from creepy to hot and now we’re back to creepy again.”

“The good professor went to work and left me here. In a good way,” Alina adds quickly. “Giving me the run of his place.”

“Oh, right on!” Genya chirps, her voice bright again. “What’s it like?”

“Peaceful,” she admits. “I feel like I should be jumping at shadows or keeping an eye on the treeline for white walkers, but…”

Genya snickers. “To be fair, no point unless he’s got a heap of dragonglass lying around.”

“I dunno, I still haven’t seen all his kink paraphernalia,” Alina mutters, flushing.

“You going to take a peek, Mrs. Bluebeard?”

“Like, snoop? Nah. He did specifically invite me to use his tablet, though.”

“That’s nice of him.”

Her friend sounds polite but distracted, and Alina flushes with shame. “What are you up to tonight? I feel like I’ve been so worried about me lately that I haven’t been there for you.”

“Girl, right now I’m like a happiness vampire, gimme that serotonin,” Genya laughs. “Unfortunately, I’m driving tonight, but I have good news.” She heaves a static-laced breath. “I think I might’ve found my place.”

Alina immediately jumps to her feet, pacing in excitement. “Oh my god, you found an apartment?”

“Well … sort of.”

She scowls into thin air. “You sort of found a place?”

“I found a place, but it’s not what I expected,” Genya hedges.

What the fuck isn’t she saying? “Is it haunted by eldritch abominations? Something’s gotta be wrong with it if you’re being this weird.”

“It’s not for rent,” Genya says slowly. “It’s for sale.”

“Holy shit,” Alina mutters, blinking to keep her eyes from bugging out completely.

“I think I can afford it. I think .” All evasion vanishes, Genya’s words suddenly tumbling forth. “Oh my god, Alina, you need to see this place — it’s close to town, and there’s a little stream that goes through the backyard, it’s so fucking serene.”

Maybe she’s only imagining the wistful note. “Am I hearing a but shoved in there?”

“It’s a multi-unit building — which isn’t exactly what I imagined, but any port in a storm, right?”

“Fuck yeah, especially when you’re buying the port.” Alina perches on the edge of the loveseat, suddenly wishing she could hug her auburn-haired friend. “Gen… holy shit…”

“God knows I’ll hardly be able to afford it if I do get it,” Genya laughs, “but yeah. This just kind of dropped into my lap — it’s not even on the market yet. Anyway, sorry, this is all a very long walk for a very short drink of water, which is to say that I’m driving tonight because I need to make every penny I can to afford Marcuria.”

“Marcuria?”

“My favorite port. And yes, I decided that just now,” Genya adds. “It’s either that or Six Grapes.”

“Well if you’ve named it, it has to be yours,” Alina says matter-of-factly. “I don’t make the rules.”

Genya lets out a bitter groan. “If only it was that easy.”

“I’m excited for you, Gen.”

“I’m excited for you! When’s your silver fox coming back to his den?”

Alina snorts at the image of Aleks pausing mid-lecture, a sour expression creeping over his face as a spidey-sense tells him that someone somewhere has called him a silver fox . “Early afternoon, I think. I was going to text him, but I don't know exactly what to say.”

“Oh come on, Alina.”

“What? I saw him just a few hours ago, I can’t be like, I miss you.

“Why not?”

“It’s so” —Alina wrinkles her nose as she searches for the right word— “ clingy .”

To her surprise, Genya hums in gentle disagreement. “I dunno, love. Everyone likes to feel like they’re wanted.”

Alina yelps as her phone buzzes in her hand — and then it’s her turn to groan.

“What is it?” Genya demands, her voice tinny from the way Alina’s holding the cell away from her ear.

“Aleks texted me.” She grimaces as she reads the three-words message aloud: “ I miss you.

Raucous laughter erupts through the earpiece.

“Yeah, yeah, yuk it up,” Alina calls wryly at her cell, pinching it between her thumb and forefinger like it might actually melt. 

“Byyyyyye,” Genya sings, and then the call disconnects.

Alina swipes into her messages, and a tiny breath huffs out of her nose as she stares down at the incriminating message, fighting a grin. So much for playing it cool.

Alina GF : I miss you, too. When will you be back?

Aleks BF : Probably around 2. Can’t wait to see you <3

It’s just an emoji, and an old-school version at that — but it still makes her chest glow with warmth as she taps out a reply.

Alina GF : I can’t wait to see you, too 

Aleks BF : Heading into a meeting. Stay cozy, and don’t forget to eat something.

She takes three selfies with her cereal, sending him the only one that’s passably cute.

Aleks BF : Good girl.

Her stomach swoops, heart squeezing hard at the words.

Then the tether of messages falls silent. She pictures him sitting comfortably in some wingback chair, utterly at ease as he chats with colleagues about Chaucer, McCaffrey, Hazelwood. Nudging his glasses higher on his nose the absentminded way he does. His cell phone tucked away in the pocket of his khakis, the solid brick a reminder of her — the way hers now makes her think of him.

It’s probably a stupid impulse that guides her to bring up the eighth Star War, the last entry she saw before everything fell apart. Before the call came that ended one life and started another. At least if I turn into a sobbing wreck I’ll have time to clean up before Aleks gets back.

Alina doesn’t break down as the opening crawl rolls across the screen, but something feels off . It isn’t until the end of the bombing run that she realizes it’s her hand — and not the bad one, for a change. The good one feels itchy, restless, as though her fingers have suddenly developed wanderlust.

Finally, after the lavender-haired admiral appears, Alina succumbs to the urge to pick up the tablet and poke through its contents. He did offer, after all.

The device is even more luxe than she was expecting, the top-of-the-line stylus comfortable in her hand. The painting app is tethered to the toolbar, and she scrolls through the gallery, smile broadening at each new design.

Finally Alina dares to open a new file, if only to avoid messing up his work. I’ll just doodle for a few minutes, check out the brushes.

She doesn’t feel the rabbit hole rise up to embrace her, nor does she feel herself falling away into the vast nothing. She’s just relaxed, content in her own solitude as she floats back into a world that’s been lost to her for months. 

For the first time in what feels like forever, she can simply be .

Chapter Text

The slam of the basement door shatters Alina’s reverie, the vibration running through the loveseat as a low, familiar voice calls, “I’m home!”

Everything comes crashing back at once as she reemerges from the tranquil void: the way the television is quietly humming on a menu screen, and has been for a long time. The screaming of her muscles as she moves for the first time in hours. The way her bladder is bursting, and the rest of the world has gone fuzzy from the force of her stare.

Shit, how long have I been sitting here? “Just a minute!”

Alina wobbles up the stairs to the Room of Requirement as the flight of steps directly below her creaks with his weight. His voice seems to float up to her. “Who’s that scurrying in my house?”

He sounds so devilish that she giggles, which doesn’t help her bladder problem in the slightest.

By the time she trots back down to the living room, still bleary-eyed, Aleks is standing beside the loveseat cradling the tablet in his hands. At first it seems like his brow is knitted in focus, but his expression doesn’t change as he glances at her, tapping the tablet with his forefinger. “This is extraordinary.”

“You were right, the app’s really good,” Alina says awkwardly — but he twitches one eyebrow higher. Gauging her in that odd way of his.

“The app didn’t sit on my couch and do that.” His stern tone makes the word Daddy peal through her mind — and it must be written all over her face, because he adds, “And don’t you dare give me that look, young lady.”

A golden glimmer shoots through Alina’s body, and she squares her shoulders. “Or you’ll what?

“Or I’ll bend you over that couch and stick a plug up your arse.”

Alina’s mouth falls open — and then she bites her lower lip, trying to compose herself as the dark man sets the tablet aside on the loveseat and gathers her into his arms. Cold radiates from his jacket as he pulls her close but he’s warm underneath, his lips molten as he claims her mouth with his.

I missed this. It’s only been a few hours that he’s been gone — how could she possibly have been aching for him this much?

And it’s not just his body but his company, the sweet smile that curves his lips as he presses a final kiss to her forehead. “That’s a much nicer welcome than I usually get.”

“Yeah, I can’t imagine Mrs. Bates slips you any tongue.”

“Oh god, ” Aleks groans, but he’s chuckling — and he pats her arse fondly. “You hungry?”

Her stomach gurgles right on cue, and Alina gives a nonchalant shrug, blushing. “The mind says yes, the body says yes…”

“Well we can’t have that,” Aleks says with another smile that melts her heart into a gilded puddle.

“What can I do to help?”

“You can sit right here” —He steers her toward the kitchen chair that’s closest to the woodstove— “and keep me company. Grilled cheese sound okay?”

“Yeah, thanks!” Alina sinks into the chair as he takes off his jacket and fiddles with the woodstove, tossing another log on the heap of embers and tweaking the knobs until the first tongues of flame lick upward. “How was class and your meeting?”

“Good.” He spares her a glance, and a flash of that warm grin as his dark eyes dance. “Too long, though, when I’ve got you hanging around here to come back to.”

“Do you have to go back to campus later?” she asks as he moves to the fridge, pulling out butter and cheese, then retrieves a loaf of bread from a basket on the counter.

“No. I do have to do some work here, but it shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours. So if you’d like to stay another night…” 

He lets the words hang, and a curious vulnerability flickers in his gaze as he looks at Alina, waiting for her answer.

For once, the rootlessness that’s overtaken her life since her diagnosis works in her favor. There’s no reason to go back to the apartment in Os Kervo, not even a pet fish that needs feeding. And maybe some extra space will snap Mal out of being such a douchenozzle. The fact that he hasn’t texted even once since she left makes her feel ill.

“Do you want me to stay another night?” Alina ventures.

“Of course.”

She narrows her eyes, studying him, but Aleks’s face is utterly open. Honest in a way she isn’t used to. “You’re really not sick of me yet?”

“Alina, I wouldn’t be feeding you if I wanted you to leave,” he tells her gently. It’s like he’s forgotten his hands are full, that the refrigerator door is hanging open. “I don’t want to push you, but I like you being here with me.”

And she wants to stay, so powerfully that something tugs deep in her chest. A crooked grin creeps over her lips. “Okay.”

Abruptly Aleks is all business, regarding Alina pointedly once more as he waggles a packet of deli cheese at her. “Right then. I have questions. First of all, very important” —He winces in anticipation of her answer— “bacon on your sandwich?”

“Oh god, absolutely,” she blurts out, and he chuckles, relaxing into movement as he reaches back into the fridge.

“Now to the more important question…” He eyes the tablet. “ Game of Thrones and Star Wars?

Alina nods. The mashup had struck her even before she picked up the tablet, an image of Ben Solo and Daenerys Targaryen, capes swirling in an invisible wind that howls through the rift between their worlds. Intricate braids coil through their hair, white and black locks trailing over their stricken faces as they reach for each other, their fingertips mere inches apart. Azure fire rears up to swallow Dany, backlighting her triple chignons even as crimson flames lick at Ben’s boot heel, but they only have eyes for each other.

Aleks glances at her as he moves to and fro before the stove, setting a pan on the burner. “Why those two?”

“Because they deserved better.” Alina picks up the tablet, gazing down at the mirrored figures. As ever, her eyes are drawn to the imperfections, but overall she’s satisfied with how the digital painting turned out. Their eyes — Dany’s blue-green, Ben’s a rich umber — sparkle with life, their bodies curved just so to give the effect that they’re being buffeted by a world-shattering hurricane. “Every time I draw them, I feel like I save them.” She traces her fingertip over Ben’s mismatched features, the way they come together to form a face that’s hauntingly beautiful. Then Dany’s, her proud Valyrian features contorted not in rage but grief. Loss. The two are bound by it, even if the tether is invisible. “Just little pieces, but it’s something. Better than feeling the emptiness.”

A sudden hiss, and Alina’s concentration pops. She jumps — but it’s only bacon sizzling in the pan as Aleks lays out a line of wide strips.

“Sorry, I’m rambling,” she mutters as her cheeks flood with a mortified heat.

He looks at her in that keen way of his, but his lips are tilted up. “Did I ask you to stop?”

“No, but—”

“Then…” he prompts gently, waving a spatula like a turning wheel. Keep going.

“I just…” Alina takes her time setting the tablet aside and taking up a seat at the kitchen table. It’s easier to speak when she doesn’t have to meet his quartz gaze. “A lot of people think it’s stupid to get bent out of shape over a movie or a tv show, but those are things that saved me at different points in my life. They gave me hope.” Her mother and father smiling, all three of them piled into bed together with popcorn. The memory still cuts like a razor, even after this long, but she wouldn’t trade it for anything. “My parents were nerds, so I grew up on a steady diet of Star Wars — and when they died, those movies were a lifeline for me. Thinking that even though I’d lost them, someday I would build a new family, and we’d watch it together.”

Fuck, it’s so stupid. So petty -sounding.

But at the same time it isn’t. It wasn’t. 

It was everything .

“When I was in the hospital I watched The Last Jedi on loop.” She swallows hard, trying to loosen the knot that’s tightening in her throat, strangling her voice to a quiet rasp. “I needed something to hold onto, something fixed. An anchor. Especially after.”

It’s a complete sentence. After. One of those mundane days that suddenly becomes cataclysmic. That was the last time she’d cried — until Aleks.

The sizzling quiets as he switches one pan for another, moving with seamless grace. “After what?”

“I found out about Nik and Zoya.” She clears her throat, but it’s no use, the lump stubbornly stays put. “He, uh, … told me after he’d dropped me off in Boston for the last round of chemo.”

Aleks just stops. When he turns to look back at her, his eyes rage with black fire, and his voice is deathly cold. “He didn’t.”

Before this moment, Alina would’ve said Aleks was incapable of properly hurting any person, during kink play or otherwise. But right now he looks like he wants to murder someone.

“Got a lot of ice cream from the nurses that cycle,” Alina says, forcing the light tone as her stomach churns. Is he going to lash out, throw something, rage at the top of his lungs? She went through it all during her years with Nik, and the screaming anxiety is already mapping out the route to the Room of Requirement to lock herself in. That’s the safest place, or was whenever Nik exploded in a storm of emotions. “The little ones you eat with a wooden spoon — only they give you a plastic one, of course, because splinters.”

He moves toward her, his fingers white-knuckling the handle of the spatula.

Alina flinches as he bends toward her — but he only slips his arm around her waist, coaxing her to her feet. “Come here, sweetheart,” he murmurs into her neck, the words tickling her skin, and he pulls her close. Wrapping her up in his embrace, their bodies so perfectly molded together that he settles his chin on the crown of her head. “You shouldn’t— No one should go through that alone.”

The words are just as firm as before, but the tender way he’s stroking her back…

No, Aleks isn’t going to explode. He just wants to hold her.

Slowly she relaxes into him.

They stand like that for a long time. Until the hissing on the stove grows insistent, and Alina starts to fidget. “The sandwiches are going to burn,” she mumbles into his chest.

Aleks only kisses her hair. “I’ll make more.”


Despite being considerably more toasted on one side than the other, the sandwiches prove delicious. Alina catches Aleks looking at her a couple times, and they giggle stupidly at each other through mouthfuls.

“Ftop, you’re gonna make me fpill,” she manages the third time she looks up to find him watching her.

“I’m not doing anything,” he mumbles in protest as he finishes his lunch.

Alina regards him with playful suspicion as she washes her own down with a draught of water. “So. The Hallow Masquerade. How masquerade-y are we talking? Because my only frame of reference is The Phantom of the Opera, and I have no idea how to waltz.”

“It’s not like that,” Aleks chuckles with a distasteful twitch of his head. “Dressing up, yes — but in our scandalous best.”

Alina grimaces inwardly. Nothing in her limited wardrobe fits that criteria. Genya, SOS.

“The big demonstrations will be in the ballroom,” Aleks continues, the words flowing easily, like he’s describing an art exhibit or a county fair. “Those scenes are the ones that use the biggest pieces of furniture or supports — St. Andrew’s Cross, rope suspension, pommels, that sort of thing. And plenty of pillows and couches to laze on if you’re feeling like a cuddle as you watch.” The glint in his eyes suggests he might be planning for just that sort of diversion. “Vendors in the music room—”

“Vendors?”

“People who sell things,” he explains.

Alina scrunches her paper towel napkin into a ball and tosses it at Aleks, gratified as it beans him on the forehead. His mouth pops open in shock, but then he catches her look, and his outrage melts in wry understanding. “I meant why will vendors be at a kink party, you dink. Like, what kind?”

“Dink, am I?” Aleks tosses the soft projectile back at Alina, but she ducks aside, giggling. “Have you ever been to a kink flea market?”

The fuck? “That’s a thing?”

Aleks nods, his smirk entirely too self-satisfied for someone who just missed at point-blank range. “The music room is where you’ll find crafters of all kinds — leather, metal, plastic, everything you can think of. Harnesses, rope, floggers, that sort of thing. That’s the same general area as refreshments.” he adds. “Very important to stay hydrated.”

“I bet,” Alina murmurs. Even hearing about the things that lie ahead makes her thirsty enough to take another gulp of water.

“Outside there’s a big bonfire. Botkin usually runs a whip demonstration at some point—”

“Hopefully everyone’s sober for that.”

“Oh they are,” Aleks assures her. “It’s a dry event.”

Alina squints, searching for any trace of humor in his expression, but he’s serious. “No great loss, but it does seem odd to have a bacchanalian revel without alcohol.”

“Not a bit, that’s a recipe for disaster. Usually someone sets up an impromptu hookah lounge, but it’s tobacco only.” He catches her fingers, gently tugging her forward as he scoots his chair back from the table. Sliding onto his lap is so natural that she doesn’t think about it until she’s there, his thighs firm beneath the curve of her ass, his arms draped around her waist and legs, holding her close. “Then of course, there’s my favorite part.”

She slips her arm over his shoulders, hiding a grin at the hungry way he’s regarding her. “And what’s your favorite part, Aleksander?”

“The primal hunt,” he breathes — and even though he keeps the smile from his plush lips, he can’t keep it from his eyes.

Alina knows the answer, but she wants to hear him say it, the same way he wanted to hear her ask his favorite part of the masquerade. “And what will you be hunting?”

“If you’re amenable,” Aleks purrs, his hand pushing higher up her thigh, “ you.

Now she does grin. “I had a feeling you’d say that.” The praxis, though… “Would I just run? Where to?”

“You saw the size of the meadow.” He shrugs, indifferent. “Most don’t reach the treeline.”

Alina’s inner competitor rouses at the casual challenge in his words. “And if they do?”

“A handful of trails lead through the woods. As far as I know, no one’s ever made it to the far side.”

“Is there something interesting out there?”

His hand roves along her thigh. “Just more of the lake, a little cove with its own beach. Not particularly interesting compared to what’s happening at the Teakettle.”

“So … let’s say you do manage to catch me, what then?” Alina asks, batting her eyes with all the innocence she can muster. It’s been a long time since she’s run anywhere , but the whole notion of him chasing her, hunting her…

Aleks’s fingers tighten on her arse until she hisses from the pleasurable torture. “ When I caught you, I would do the most primal thing I can think of.” His eyes glitter with a cold sort of comfort, and his huge hands gather the fabric of her t-shirt and leggings. “Tear off your clothes and violate your pretty little cunt with my cock.”

Alina’s core heats at the thought of him holding her down in the grass, his body eclipsing the stars. She shifts in his lap, and his faint grunt suggests she’s not the only one picturing it. “And if other people see—”

“—they’d wish they were me,” he growls with mischievous delight.

She pretends to consider it. “It does combine a few different mutual interests of ours.”

“Make no mistake, pet, this wouldn’t be gentle.” All traces of humor vanish from Aleks’s handsome features, and he gazes not at her but into her. Thoroughly serious. “Even trying to go easy on you, there’s the risk of getting hurt. If it’s not something you’re interested in, or if it’d be too much for your body right now—”

“I’m interested,” she interrupts fiercely. “And when it comes to the physical part … well, what about you?”

His brow knits in confusion. “What d’you mean, what about me?”

“Aren’t you afraid of breaking a hip, Daddy?”

“Oh, you’re going to regret that one, my little brat,” Aleks rumbles, his eyes darkening.

“Really.” Alina bites her lower lip, secretly delighted as his obsidian gaze drops to her mouth. 

Really.

She flashes an eyebrow, feeling flirtier than ever now that he’s caressing her. “What would you do to punish me?”

“Maybe tie these pretty legs so you couldn’t run.” He trails a single fingertip over her leggings, plunging between her thighs. Not that he’s anywhere near her pussy, of course; he seems content merely making her squirm. “Tie you open, so you can’t say no.”

Alina’s heart thuds at the word.

“What if I like saying no?” she asks softly, nervous enough to immediately blunder on, “I mean … the stoplight system exists for a reason.”

“Fuck,” Aleks groans. But as he catches her hips in his hands and guides her to her feet, he stands, too. “Come on, let’s clean up. One thing at a time.”

Alina grumbles a curse, and his laughter is enough to lessen the sting of adulting, clearing away the dishes and putting everything back in its place.


The snap of the laptop slamming shut makes Alina jump.

“Right,” Aleks announces. “All done.”

He whisks the stylus out of her fingers before she can draw breath to complain, and his fingers close around her wrist, yanking her to her feet so fast that the tablet thumps to the floor. “Come on.”

“Where do you think you’re going?” Alina demands, giggling in disbelief.

He turns back long enough to throw her a scorching look. “You know where we’re going, pet.”

“Bold of you to assume I’m in the mood,“ she says, pretending to be haughty. Acting — albeit poorly — like she isn’t tingling from her cheeks to the soles of her feet.

Aleks nudges her against the wall at the foot of the stairs, boxing her in with his hips. Alina murmurs with longing as he leans close, his hair tickling her cheek as his beard grazes the column of her neck. Not kissing her, or even nuzzling her properly. Scenting her, maybe.

“I know, Alina,” he breathes into her skin, hot and hungry. “I know because of the way you’ve been biting your lip.” Now he does kiss her throat, just barely, and electricity sparks through her nerves. “The way you’ve been kneading your feet together.” Another soft kiss, this one lingering, making her pulse chant faster. “The way you keep looking at me when you think my attention is somewhere else.”

Alina’s thighs are trembling so hard that she presses herself against the wall, turning her face away. Playing along with this flirtation. “You’re imagining things.”

Am I?” The older man cups one of her breasts, sweeping his thumb over her hardening nipple. Groping her. “What would I find in your knickers, Miss Starkov, if I were to help myself to a handful of your pussy?”

She gasps in melodramatic indignation. “You wouldn’t dare.”

His free hand skates along the waistband of her leggings, tracing a path from her hip to the center seam — and with a soft grunt he shoves his bladed hand into her underwear, palming her pussy.

Aleks’s gasp is almost as sharp as her own. “ Fuck me running, what the hell were you drawing?”

“It’s not what I was drawing, it’s what I was thinking about,” she mutters, her spine arching as his fingers spiral around her soaked entrance.

“Tell Daddy everything, sweetheart,” he croons, deliciously taunting.

She runs her good hand up his arm, following the sharp curve of his shoulder and the slope of his neck. Burying her hand in his hair just to hold on as he toys with her clit, and pleasure coils low in her belly. “W-What you were talking about earlier.”

“Use your words, darling.”

“About tying me down… tying me open—”

He hums with understanding. “You like the idea of being helpless?”

“Only if it’s you,” Alina grits out.

The hand on her breast tightens, kneading her harshly. “I like that even more.”

“I didn’t know you were so possessive.”

Aleks kisses the hollow of her jaw, and goosebumps race over her skin. “Only for fun.” 

It’s nearly impossible to think through the blissful hurricane as his fingertips swirl around her wet lacuna again. “Do you want to possess me, Daddy?”

He sinks two fingers into her pussy, and she cries out — but he only lifts his chin. Looking down on her with noble disdain, still in control as she goes to ecstatic pieces around him. 

“I could fuck you against this wall.” He pushes his fingers into her in a demanding pace, seemingly insensate to her soft cries. “Make you come until you can’t stand.”

Alina grins crookedly. “Do you want sex, or do you want kinky sex, Aleks?”

His mouth pops open, but then his gaze hardens. “Upstairs. Now.”

Visceral disappointment nearly makes her crumble as he pulls his fingers out of her, and her legs are rubber bands as she stumbles up the stairs, Aleks shadow-close over her shoulder. 

He catches her in his arms in the middle of his bedroom, kissing her so deeply that she moans into his mouth. The bed presses against the back of her thighs, and his hands move to her hips, holding her there as he leans back. “Everything off.”

Alina gives a disgruntled hmmph as he steps away, but follows his command, shedding her clothes piece by piece. “I must be a pretty accommodating prey if I’m willing to strip for you.”

He moves to the cubbies of rainbow rope, and even though he’s facing away, she can hear the smirk in his voice. “And yet you’ve done exactly that.”

Arrogant bastard. It’s so fucking hot to see him this way , knowing he truly isn’t like this.

She’s sitting on the foot of his bed, naked and nerved-up, when he returns. Her eyes go wide at the sheer number of rope bundles he drops on the bed beside her, and her heart drums hard enough to rattle her ribs. “You need all of those?”

“Are you telling me how to throw rope, my little brat?” Aleks drawls, his expression perilous.

Alina clamps her lips together and vigorously shakes her head.

“That’s what I thought.” His cold demeanor fades, and he plants his fists on the bed outside her thighs, leaning close. Studying her with concern. “You’re sure you want to do this?”

“Consider it a pre-Hallow Masquerade test.”

Aleks grunts. “And you will stick to the stoplight system.”

Not asking.

She cups his jaw and smiles to reassure him. “Yes, Daddy. I promise.”

His lips seal against her in a kiss that’s so sweet it makes her toes curl and her cunt clench.

The silver-shot man ties her up slowly. First her legs, each one bent double, bound heel to thigh with its own rope. Then her wrists, manacled together in the way that’s fast becoming familiar.

“Lie back,” he tells her, and she obeys, lifting her arms over her head to rest on a small mound of pillows. “Do you think you’ll be able to hold this pose for a while?”

“Mm-hmm.”

Aleks scowls down at her. “Alina—”

“Yes,” she says quickly. “Yes, I think I’ll be able to hold this pose.”

“And if you feel pins and needles, you will…?” he prompts.

“Call red immediately.”

He strokes her hair, and it’s a good thing she’s already lying down because the caress is swoonworthy. “Good girl.”

Fuck.

And it is comfortable, just like she’s lying on her bed idly staring at the ceiling, heels planted on the soft blankets. The ropes tied around her wrists tug, and she’d think he had fastened her to the bedpost if he didn’t then walk around to the far side.

The tugging comes again, and Alina twists her head up to see that he’s split the doubled-over lines, tying one rope to each of the posts flanking the head of the bed. 

Oh. Well then.

She pulls gently, testing, but it’s impossible to either move her arms very far to either side, let alone bring her wrists down to her face.

Aleks tuts quietly. “No cheating.”

“I’m not cheating,” Alina insists, but her only answer is another skeptical hmmph.

The warmth of his fingers trades off with the rasp of rope against her skin, the darkling man tending to her outside one thigh and then the other. A few times she cranes her head up to see him working, anchoring her tied-up legs to the bed posts on either side of her.

At long last she hears him step back. “How does that feel?”

Instinctive panic bubbles in her stomach as she finds the limits of each of the lines securing her legs. She can’t close them — and she whimpers with horrorstruck delight as he looms over her, his heat settling between her open thighs. “It’s … it’s good.

“What a pretty prize I have.” He leans over her, not giving her his weight, but showing her how free he is. “All splayed out. Incapable of defending herself.”

“I bet you like that,” Alina snarls as the smooth fabric of his button-down shirt grazes her nipples. He’s rolled his sleeves up to the elbow, and his muscular forearms are so damn hot that she has to grit her teeth to keep from begging for his cock.

Aleks chuckles coldly. “Sweetheart, I love this. All of you laid out for me to take at my leisure…” He follows the line of her sternum with the tip of his nose, and the ropes tremble as a shiver works through her.

“I’ll never surrender to you,” she gasps as he sucks her tits, peppering the swells of her breasts with measured bites.

“Are you so sure of that?” Aleks’s fingers find her cunt, opening her and spreading her arousal through her folds as she whines. “Your body’s surrendering to me already.”

“No… no… ” Alina begs. Please don’t stop oh god don’t stop

“Aww, no? ” he mocks, the words dripping with condescension. “Bet you’d hate it if I put my fingers inside you.”

“No— y-you can’t—”

Can’t? ” His other hand brackets her throat, not squeezing, but holding her in place as he sneers down at her. “Kitten, you don’t want to tell me what I can’t do.”

“S-Stop,” she moans as Aleks shoves his fingers into her slickened cunt, reclaiming her and caressing her inner walls. 

Even his laugh is patronizing — and it’s sexy. “Stop? When you’re liking it this much?”

Fuck, I love this… “I d-don’t—”

“That’s not what your pussy’s telling me.” His thumb drags over her clit, making everything inside her go taut. “Feel that? You’re squeezing my fingers.”

Alina heaves weeping breaths, writhing in feigned distress to disguise her pleasure. “I’m not!”

“Liar,” Aleks growls.

He kisses a languid line down her stomach, but she doesn’t truly start to struggle until he passes her navel. She can’t see him now, only a crescent of his silver-and-black hair as he reaches her mound and she realizes what he’s doing. “ No—!

“You can’t begrudge me a quick taste,” he rumbles.

A guttural howl rips out of her at his first lick, and soon he’s lapping at her bared pussy. All she can hear are his growls and the wet sounds of him devouring her, sucking her clit and teasing her as she fights his ropes.

Aleks scrawls a wet line along the seam of her slit, dragging the flat of his tongue against the peak of sensitive nerves as he slides a finger into her. “So fucking eager…”

Her whole body is a live wire for him, and she sucks in panting breaths. “I’m not eager!”

“You’re so needy you’re shivering.”

Alina has to grunt to choke back a scream as he gently blows on her clit. He’s right: her hips are quaking, canting to open herself to him, but it’s too early to admit it. “I’m cold.”

“Let me fix that.” Aleks stands, but she can still only lie there, splayed open and watching as he takes off his shirt one slow button at a time. He wipes his beard on it, then tosses the shirt aside, leaning over her again with a rumble of pleasure.

The heat of his bare chest makes her squeak, and the sound stretches into a sob as he nuzzles into her breasts. “ Fuck, these tits…” he mumbles around her nipple.

“Stop touching me!”

“No.” His laugh is rich, merry as he fondles her. “See, pet, you’re not the only one who can say that word.”

“I’m not your pet,” Alina pretends to seethe.

Aleks catches her chin, forcing her to meet his imperious gaze. “Then why are you tied to my bed?”

Her lips burn for him, but he draws back, straightening. Metal jangles, burrs, and then his cock is there in his hand, stiff with need. He drags his fingers through her drenched cleft, gathering her slick, then rubs it into his length. Watching her as he casually pumps himself through his hand. “I could come like this. Splatter my cum all over your pretty skin.”

“Only a monster would do that,” Alina hisses.

He shrugs, either weary or uncaring as he gives himself a few more lazy strokes. “Fine, make me your villain. It won’t stop me from filling your tight pussy with my cum.”

“Wait— B-But you said—”

He teases her clit with his hot, thick glans, greasing his cockhead as she shudders with barely-contained bliss. “I said I could come on you. But coming inside you will be infinitely more satisfying, don’t you think?”

Yesyesyes

She sobs with need as he guides himself lower, notching himself into her cunt and sinking into her inch by searing inch.

“You feel so good, little slut.” His eyes are heavy-lidded with desire, his voice husky as he pushes deeper. “Just dripping for me.”

Alina’s breaths are shallow, quick, all her attention claimed by his thick length as he strains into her core. “I’m n-not a slut.”

“You will be after this. A slut for my cock. Only mine.”

The words have that same dark, playful edge as everything else they’re telling each other, but this makes her heart catch. It might actually be true.

A brutal snap of his hips and they’re aligned, Alina crying out with desire as he transfixes her. His prick is fully seated inside her, adamantine, throbbing as her overtaxed muscles scream in protest.

He grabs the rope lines securing one of her legs, and his other hand settles on the valley between the prominences of her hips. “Don’t come.” He pulls out a few inches, then thrusts deep. “If you come I’ll have to fuck you even harder.”

Then his thumb finds her clit again.

No, ” Alina gasps, but he’s already finding a rhythm, scrawling insistent circles at her apex as he fucks into her. Each long stroke ends with the pinch of him hitting her cervix — and the pressure of his hand against her lower belly makes her shiver strangely as an entirely new kind of rapture draws together inside her, golden and inescapable.

“Don’t do it,” he commands, the words harsh. “I’ll have to rail you if you come on my cock.”

She heaves whimpering breaths, trying to keep herself from the brink as he pounds into her, but it’s no use. The brilliant edge finds her anyway, Aleks’s fingers and cock weaving a spell that drags her into rapturous oblivion.

“Oh no. ” Her eyes are screwed up against the shattering orgasm, but his words find her all the same — and he sounds anything but disappointed. “You know what that means?”

“Y-You’re going to rail me?” she gasps.

“That’s right.” He pistons into her harder, faster. His hand still resting there on her mound, his thumb working her clit as his cock twitches hungrily inside her. “Oh fuck, ” he groans, the slap of flesh and her wanton whines filling the bedroom. “Tell me you don’t want this, little slut.”

“I d-dont…” She can’t remember how to speak as she spills over the horizon again, let alone object. “I can’t—”

“Gods, the way you’re gripping me, Alina.” The way he says her name coaxes her into opening her eyes — and now it’s him who’s lost in her, eyes closed, his perfect brow contorted as he defiles her. “Take it, take me, take all of me —”

Aleks covers her body with his own again, his heat surrounding her, breaking her open. He ruts into her desperately, using her body to chase his orgasm. Like she truly is his prisoner, and he’s claiming her for his own.

Alina knows he’s close when his hips start to stutter, his breaths ragged with lust. “No, please—”

“Louder,” he grunts.

“Aleks … Aleks, no, you don’t have to do this,” she begs. “Don’t come inside me, I swear I’ll be good— nonono—!

He comes with a roar, clinging to her body as he thrusts punishingly deep. A few more slams and then he groans, stilling as his heat spurts into her.

“God damn, ” Alina gasps, trembling with euphoric aftershocks.

All Aleks can offer is a wrung-out, “Mm-hmm,” that makes her giggle and moan and ache all over again.

Chapter Text

“So.”

The word rumbles through Aleks’s chest, finding Alina where she’s sprawled against him. He’s been tracing tingling designs over the plane of her bare back, soothing her as they laze in his bed, legs tangled together. The ropes lie discarded, forgotten the moment he untied her, and her ablutions — though brief — were thorough enough to return and crawl into bed beside him.

“So,” she mumbles back, the word muffled by his velvet skin.

His hand moves to hers, drawing her forearm up to inspect it again. “What did you think?”

“I loved it,” Alina admits. She doesn’t even dare say how much she adored it — and her heart stumbles at the idea that he might not feel the same. “What did you think?”

“Yeah.” His chest rises and falls in a sigh of pleasure. “Same.”

She pokes his cheek. “Use your words, Aleks.”

He chuckles and catches her hand, drawing it back to his chest. “It’s hard to be articulate after something so…” Another hum of satisfaction as he caresses the rope marks. “These look good on you. Like they belong.”

Alina squirms with happiness. “Did you like hearing me say no?”

“More than I can say,” Aleks murmurs. Then he pulls back, and his dark eyes are troubled. “But did anything—”

“Nothing pushed my limits,” she says softly — and she must have anticipated correctly, because he falls silent. “I know how consent-focused you are, so seeing you like that …” She blows out a breath, her cunt tightening at the reminder of his cruel mask. “It was hot.” Her pulse sings quietly as she scans his face for signs of distaste. “Was everything okay with you?”

Relief gushes through her veins at his smile. “So much more than okay.” The hand at her back moves lower to claim her naked arse, squeezing with a comfortable possessiveness. “You’re such a cute victim. Seeing you tied to my bed was just…” He shakes his head, tousled hair snagging on his glasses frame as his smile broadens to a grin. “Wow.”

His gaze is too intense, like staring into the sun, and she settles her cheek on his chest again. The idea that this beautiful, funny, clever man could think himself unlovable is sacreligious. Even thinking about it, she snorts with derision. “Luda was an idiot for ever letting you go.”

She knows the words are a mistake the moment they pass her lips and Aleks stiffens beneath her, his huge body abruptly taut as a drawn bowstring.

It’s beyond merciful that her face is turned away. She wants to cringe into a singularity of mortification.

Fuck fuck FUCK

“I know you mean that kindly, but … it wasn’t like you and Nikolai,” Aleks says, the words halting. Strangled.

Alina can barely muster up a tiny, “Oh.”

“In large part because Nikolai sounds like the absolute worst person I’ve ever heard of,” the older man adds — and then his hand is moving over her back again, but it feels different than before. Distracted, his body still fraught with tension.

“Guess I can’t argue with that,” she murmurs, but instead of feeling close to Aleks, suddenly it feels like they’re a thousand miles apart.


I shouldn’t feel threatened by this. He’s introduced her to Baghra, Botkin — people who truly matter to him. She hasn’t asked him about Luda because she’s always assumed he would talk about her when he was ready.

But his visceral reaction to what she’d meant to be an offhand comment — stupidly timed, maybe, but—

“Hey.” Aleks’s deep, soft voice makes her jump so hard the seatbelt snaps tight across her chest. His face is spectral in the car’s darkness, but she can see his brows are raised in the middle, his eyes glittering with genuine concern. “Where did you go?”

“Hmm?” Only now does she feel the way her own brow is scrunched in a scowl of concentration, and she forces herself to relax. “Oh … nowhere.” 

Maybe it isn’t a lie. Maybe I’m worrying over nothing.

His hand settles on her thigh, squeezing gently. “I’m sorry that the next few days are so busy.”

“Yes, how dare you have a life,” Alina says, forcing a wan smile.

“How about Friday evening? You could spend the night with me, make a weekend of it.”

“I—” The word catches in her throat, and as she gulps hard, she realizes she doesn’t know what to say.

“What?” Even in the dim light she can see his worry.

“I just…” I’m jumping at shadows. It’s nothing. She shakes her head, indicating her throat, and Aleks nods his understanding as she takes a sip of water from her travel bottle. “I’ve just never met anyone who’s wanted to spend time with me so much.”

“Maybe you just hadn’t met the right person,” Aleks suggests with that crooked grin — and as Alina’s heart throbs in her chest, she can’t be worried anymore.


The unease in her gut entirely vanishes as they turn onto the final street to find the driveway empty. Mal isn’t home. He loves the truck more than most people, so if he is in the apartment, there’s something truly wrong.

Aleks parks in the empty space, and as Alina unbuckles they slump back against the seats, just looking at each other in silence as the car purrs. He catches her good hand in his, lifting it to his lips for a soft kiss, and the chivalrous gesture makes her stomach go weightless. It’s only two days, why am I feeling so … squishy?

Still Aleks doesn’t release her hand, but presses it between his. The touch as urgent as the way his eyes are burning into her. “Friday can’t come soon enough.”

“You took the words right out of my head,” Alina admits with a wry laugh.

“If you need anything—”

“Aleks.” Now she squeezes his hand, unable to hold back a smile at his insistence. “It’s two days, I’ll survive.”

His brows shoot up in alarm, like he’s properly worried that she might not make it. “You’d better.”

“Text me when you get home.”

“I’m going to text you a lot,” the older man says fondly.

Alina grins. “You’d better.”

He lets her fingers through his, and nods to the apartment’s front door. “Go, or I’m going to drive off and keep you with me forever.”

Everything in her lurches. There’s that word again.

She reaches for the door handle, but Aleks steals her back for one more kiss. “All right. Now go.”

Alina blinks and she’s already there on the front step unlocking the door, the chill night assailing her face in a million frozen pinpricks. He only changes gear to reverse once she’s across the threshold, and with a final click the door shuts behind her and she’s alone.

The darkness surprises her, only the harsh fluorescent light of the fume hood over the stove welcoming her back. She doesn’t notice the cold until she hangs up her jacket and realizes it’s not just lingering from outside. The whole house is cooler than it should be.

Mal definitely isn’t home. And from the unwelcoming state of things, it’s possible he’s been gone longer than a few hours.

The idea that he’s gone somewhere overnight brings a flood of relief, and she busies herself with making herself a comfortable nest. Each room has its own thermostat, so she doesn’t bother turning the heat up anywhere else; with her own door closed it won’t matter.

A half hour later Alina’s bedroom is cozy and the twinkle lights are shining merrily, but even for its small size the room feels empty . Of course it’s bound to seem wanting after so much time at Aleks’s house, but she doesn’t expect how hard the feeling hits her, a sledgehammer of loneliness that she only barely manages to muffle.

It’s been harder to push the unwanted feelings away since the day her emotional floodgates reopened. Maybe that’s why she dares to shove a fleece blanket into the gap at the bottom of the door, light a stick of incense, and crack open her window to sneak a few puffs into the dark night.

Two days. I can keep busy for two days.

Besides, she has work to do.


Genya’s smile is practically criminal, beaming as bright as the barely-risen sun. Her wavy auburn hair has been tamed in a sleek ponytail, and even without makeup she’s radiant. “Morning, babe!”

Alina throws herself into the Charger’s passenger seat with a groan. Even the effort it takes to close the door and buckle herself in feels monumental.

“Don’t you look a sight,” Genya giggles.

“Nnh,” Alina grunts in response. If she’s ethereal, I’m a cave troll.

Genya regards her with kindly skepticism. “Are you sure you want to do this?”

The idea of chucking this whole business in the bin and going back to bed is so tempting that Alina hesitates. But she barely has time to check if she’s fit enough for what’s ahead, let alone get in shape, and she certainly can’t control the flow of time. “Yeah, I really should.”

Genya spares Alina a suspicious glance as she leans back, checking for oncoming traffic before reversing out of the driveway. “ Should , what does that mean?”

“So … the Hallow Masquerade,” Alina begins awkwardly, shoving her backpack down between her knees and into the footwell. “You’re coming, right?”

“Damn right I’m coming,” Genya snorts, shoving the car into gear.

“Did you go last year?”

Genya’s auburn ponytail switches against the headrest as she shakes her head. “Hooked up with the community a bit too late, but oh em gee the stories.” Her typically honey-smooth voice is squeaky with excitement, and she bounces in her seat. “I’m so excited that we’re going to our first one together! —Wait,” she interrupts herself with a visible click , her eyes narrowing in suspicion, “is that why you’re up at the asscrack of dawn?”

“The, uh, primal hunt.” Alina feels silly saying the words in the blinding light of day, but Genya nods soberly.

“Ahh. So at the risk of getting all Mummy on you, are you sure you’re up to it?”

“Honestly, no,” Alina admits. “I can’t actually remember the last time I jogged anywhere, let alone ran — and my doctors told me to wave off from things like roller derby, I can’t imagine how badly they’d let me have it if I told them about this…” She twitches her head. Unwilling to give up before it’s even begun. “But if I don’t just try, I know I’m gonna regret it. Life is too fucking short.”

“Ayyy-men,” Genya agrees.

“What’ve you heard about it?”

Genya’s brows arch, her expression shifting from worry to feline anticipation. “The two words that come up are rough and fun, so take from that what you will.”

Alina internally winces, even as some inner instinct rouses with interest. “Like, broken bones rough?”

“Not that I know of, but scrapes, a few twisted ankles, I think,” Genya says with an easygoing shrug.

“Oof.”

“Does that put you off?”

“Not a bit,” Alina says. “Safety’s relative, right?”

Genya throws her another warm grin. “See, this is why we’re friends. You get it.”

“So…” Alina gnaws her lip. Maybe it was nothing and she’s freaking out because of what happened with Nik … but Aleks had actively encouraged her to ask around about him when they met. Maybe she simply hadn’t known the right thing to ask. “I have a question.”

“Hopefully I have an answer.”

“I said something to Aleks about his ex — like, that she was an idiot for leaving him—”

“Okay.”

“—and he got sort of … defensive.”

Genya squints, thinking. “Defensive how?”

“He said their breakup wasn’t like me and Nik — which, fair — but … I dunno,” Alina finishes awkwardly.

“Gut feeling?”

Alina nods. “Should I be threatened?”

I wouldn’t be, but that’s just me,” Genya hedges. “That’s one of those areas where monogamy and polyamory part ways.” She pauses. “Want me to ask around?”

That makes Alina straighten up. “Can you? —discreetly?”

“Of course, babe. What’s her name?”

It’s never occured to her to ask Aleks his ex’s last name. Probably for the best, since clearly I am unsubtle as fuck. “Luda something.”

Genya’s lips tug in a faint frown. “Doesn’t ring a bell but I’ll see what I can do.”

“If you weren’t driving I would give you a hug, you are literally the best,” Alina sighs. Enough about me. “You going to try to seduce David?”

“Doubt it.” Genya gives a groaning laugh as she sags, defeated. “ Uff, I never know how to engage him for more than a few words at a time, and he’s just so sweet —”

A lightning strike of upsight hits Alina. “Talk to him about art.”

Genya scowls at her. “In the middle of what’s essentially a kinky playground, you think I should talk to him about what, chiaroscuro or something?” She huffs. “I don’t even know what that word means, I’m just pulling shit out of my arse.”

“That’s usually where shit comes from,” Alina snickers before composing herself. “Anyway, some people just don’t like talking about themselves — so talk about what you know he likes.”

Genya laughs in disbelief. “Alina, I cannot be cool and sexy talking about art.”

“Why not?”

The auburn-haired woman waves one hand in a helpless circle. “I’m not you, I clearly don’t know the first thing about it.”

“Then forget about being cool sexy Genya and open with that,” Alina suggests firmly. “Literally, just pick any painting in the Teakettle and say, Hey, what do you know about this one?

Her friend snorts. “You and the fine professor been doing some breath play?”

“Oh shut it,” Alina growls playfully, and then Genya cranks the music, both of them singing along — terribly — to the banger of a playlist.


Alina fidgets with her t-shirt as she stares down the track. It’s not huge, but the quality’s surprisingly decent, the surface bouncy like it’s been made out of recycled tires. The long oval runs around the upper story of the building, curving around above weight machines on one half and a humble gymnasium on the other.

The place is practically empty, only a handful of buff gym rats downstairs and a few senior citizens circling the outer lane of the track like hunched grey beads.

Movement downstairs catches her eye: it’s Genya, flashing a double thumbs-up from the grid of weight machines before she tucks her earbuds into place and gets to work.

My turn.

Alina doesn’t have music; she wants to hear her own breaths, just as he will — or he might.

If.

She starts slowly. Walking, just to see how it feels. Then quickening until she’s moving at a brisk pace. The broken point in her shoulder grumbles quietly, and her left hand wants to flop like a beached trout, but otherwise the worst thing is the sports bra’s lack of actual support.

Then she’s jogging, so annoyed at her bra that it feels good to let the aggravation out somehow. The burning spreads through her muscles, her body coming awake as she pushes herself to finish a single circuit. 

By the time she finishes, her heart is pounding, and not just from jogging.

I can actually do this.


Alina’s icing her sore muscles, poring over Kinkatopia for scraps of information about past primal hunts, when it occurs to her that her best resource might not be on the pervy site at all.

Genya provides the Electric Teakettle’s address readily enough. There’s no sense in giving Aleks even a hint of what she’s up to. Not when he thinks he has a home court advantage.

Alina grins as she settles herself in front of her laptop, even though her taxed muscles reproach her with every movement. His arrogance shall be his downfall.

There’s nothing at the street level that will help, of course. The most any mapping car has captured is the front gates, and just a hint of the rutted track that curls away into the woods. But from overhead the property is laid bare.

The circle and square of the Electric Teakettle sits a comfortable distance from the edge of the lake, the road a glimmering line in the satellite’s eye. The orchard occupies a healthy swatch of land to the east, while meadowland sprawls away to the southwest. The forest hems in the open wedge of uninterrupted green, but there’s a blip of brown on the far side of the dull peninsula.

Warmth races from the nape of her neck down her spine. It is a little cove, only a tiny crescent compared to the Teakettle’s spacious waterfront, but distinctly visible. Just like he said.

The three threads are barely discernible, like straggling lines of blurry pixels, but they’re there. What’s more, they look relatively straight.

Alina studies the trio of routes carefully. Aleks spoke of the trails so dismissively that if she actually reaches the nearest trailhead, she could have a leg up on the older man. Roots will probably be the biggest danger along the way, all too ready to hook an unwitting foot and send its owner sprawling. Maybe a wrist flashlight? That might run counter to the primal aspect, but maybe they’ll make an exception.

The image that’s stuck in her head is the Hunger Games tributes sprinting away from the Cornucopia, desperate for cover.

Alina GF : Sooo … the primal hunt. 2 questions. #1 - do we get a head start?

Aleks BF : Yes, thirty seconds. And your other question?

Alina GF : Can I bring a flashlight? I’m worried abt tripping in the woods

Aleks BF : Ambitious to think you’d get that far >:)

Alina GF : *You’re* ambitious to think you can catch me 😜

Aleks BF : No flashlights allowed — but the trails will be illuminated with lanterns, if that helps.

Alina considers his response carefully. Thirty seconds might be enough time to get properly out ahead of him, and if not, surely there are worse things than being defiled in a field with a bunch of strangers doing the same. And if the trails are lit, that allays any concerns she might have about the lack of a flashlight.

She’s still pretending to weigh the pros and cons when her phone buzzes in her hand.

Aleks BF : I don’t want to influence you one way or the other, but does that coquettish reply mean I might be able to hope…?

She can picture him sitting in some cramped campus office, trying to juggle essays and meetings while distracted by dark, delectable thoughts of chasing her down, claiming her body with his own. Even sitting here doing nothing but staring at the satellite map it’s distracting as hell, heat rushing between her thighs as her body reacts instinctively.

Alina GF : Yes, Professor, you may hope

Alina GF : I have hopes, too 😉

Aleks BF : Is that so? Do tell.

Alina GF : I *hope* you’re going to be able to keep your head up among your fellow predators when I outrun you 😘😘

Aleks BF : My dear girl…

Aleks BF : You’d better apologize to your pussy for the pounding it’s going to get for that remark.

One more day. One more day.

She shoves her hand between her thighs, and it takes hardly any time at all to coax the orgasm from her soaked cunt.


Alina’s lounging in bed on Thursday night when the truck’s familiar purr crescendos, tires rasping on the icy driveway. The front door rattles, her wall shivering as it opens and slams shut.

Mal.

Her heart’s instantly throbbing in her throat, her scalp prickling with warning. She drags an oversized sweatshirt on top of her pajamas, straightening her flannel boxers as she stands and shoves her feet into her slippers. Might as well grab the asshole by the horns.

Alina cracks her bedroom door, arms crossed as she leans against the jamb. Mal’s unslinging a backpack from his shoulders, and he stops like he’s been jolted as their eyes meet.

“Hey,” Alina ventures warily.

“Hey,” Mal says, equally cautious.

Time to take a risk. She raises her eyebrows and offers a lopsided smile. “You done being a turd monster?”

A laugh pops out of him at the last words, like she’s caught him by surprise. He reddens, shaking his head as his gaze drops. “Look, I’m…” He heaves a huge breath as he drops his backpack — and when he meets her gaze again he looks apologetic. Almost pained. “I’m sorry I acted like a dick.”

Relief makes her legs wobbly, and she gives a breathless laugh. “Hey, happens to the best of us.”

“Doesn’t ever seem to happen to you, ” Mal says — and for the first time in what feels like forever, his words aren’t barbed. “I shouldn’t have told you what to do with your money, and I shouldn’t have been judgy about … y’know…”

Alina braces inwardly, half-expecting her words to shatter this tenuous truce. “My boyfriend?”

“Yeah. That.”

He’s fidgeting awkwardly, not angry like he was the last few times they talked. “Why are you so uncomfortable saying that word?”

“Because, it’s just— It’s weird for me, okay?” Mal bursts out. Still not angry, but wide-eyed with something that looks like confusion as he runs a hand over his buzzed head. “You were with Nik for a really long time — and I’ve known you for so much longer than that, it’s just… It was weird, finding out that way.” His eyes plead with her, puppy-dog in surrender. “Think about it the other way around.”

“I’d be happy for you,” Alina says gently. “Like, I’m assuming that’s where you were — and that’s good, it’s healthy.”

“What?” 

She waves a hand, gesturing to him. “The overnight bag, vanishing act… Weren’t you out hooking up with someone?”

Mal immediately freezes up, his cheeks reddening. “Oh yeah. That.

“Look, I want you to be happy.” Alina’s emboldened enough by his obvious mortification to step out of her doorway and into the kitchen proper, uncrossing her arms. “However you find that happiness is up to you, I just…” She’s so tired. Tired of fighting, tired of feeling unsafe. “Can’t we just drop all the crap and be friends again?”

“Yeah,” Mal says — and with that word, it’s like a cage around her ribs opens, and she can breathe again.

“I’m not gonna pry, but … did you have fun?”

He considers her question, squinting with thought. “It was what I needed.”

Alina bobs her head in understanding. Good enough. “Hey, do you wanna hang out and watch Naked Survival? I think I’ve got a bag of emergency cookies stashed away — and you know you like snacking as they bitch over bugs.”

Mal laughs, the sound still tight with discomfort. “Yeah, all right. Give me a few to unpack.”

“Sure thing. It’ll probably take me that long to find the cookies, anyway.” Alina heads to the cabinet that seems most promising and goes up on her toes, scrabbling through half-full boxes of tea and granola bars to find her prize.

“What exactly is an emergency coo—”

Mal breaks off with a weird gulping noise, like he’s being strangled — and Alina looks back to find him staring at her legs.

He gestures weakly, his voice hoarse. “What happened to you?”

Happened? ” Alina looks down, but everything’s as it should be.

“You’re all bruised.”

Fuck, the evil stick. Molten heat fills her face, and she tries to tug the cookie bag out of its hiding place, but it’s stuck between cardboard boxes. “I, uh, fell.”

“On a grill? ” he demands. “Those lines—”

“On ice, ” Alina lies quickly, wrestling the paper-and-aluminum-foil bag out of its place and turning to hide her arse. She tugs at the hem of her boxers. “Big ridges of it in the driveway. Totally wiped out like a dumbass.”

All Mal says is, “Huh.”

He doesn’t believe me. She fiddles with the bag, trying to pretend like her heart isn’t hammering. “You gonna unpack or just sit there gawping at my war wound?”

“Yeah, sorry,” he mumbles, scooping up his backpack and heading into his bedroom with a final worried glance.

Alina retreats to her own room and exchanges her boxers for a pair of leggings. That was a close call. She wants to believe Mal’s apology, desperately, but the way he’d stared at the marks from the evil stick…

Better safe than sorry. And a reminder that she’ll have to come up with something next time that’s either a smarter lie, or — more terrifying — the truth.

Chapter Text

It feels like forever and no time at all since Alina last saw Aleks — and her stomach flips as the silver sedan appears, slowing beside the curb in front of the apartment, directional blinking.

Her backpack is so stuffed that it’s been bloated out of shape, almost rolling off her back when she slings the strap over her good shoulder. Everything in it is essential for spending a weekend away from home, but still she’s mildly abashed. The sight of a straining zipper usually brings a grin to her lips, but this… God, he’s going to think I’m trying to move in.

“Right, so I’ll be gone ’til Sunday,” Alina calls over her shoulder as she hurries to the front door and slips into her sneakers. “Text me if you need anything.”

The television’s blaring changes, no more than a shift in the air, but when she looks up, Mal’s framed by the living room doorway. “Where you headed?”

Fuck. “Um, to the … woods?” It’s not technically a lie; hopefully he won’t notice the hesitation in her words. “Reception might be spotty, so don’t worry if I don’t text back right away.”

“You’re going camping in November?” Mal screws up his face in a scowl. “Hardcore.”

She shrugs, trying to look nonchalant. “It’s supposed to be really warm this weekend.”

Mal snorts. “Text me when you wanna bail.”

She watches him go as he turns and heads back into the living room, and the television abruptly grows louder. Was he joking? It’s hard to tell, now that everything between them has gone back to normal. Supposedly.

It’s been less than a day, and although everything’s been fine on the surface, Alina’s gut still simmers with unease. Like she’s walking on eggshells, and if she steps in the wrong place, everything will crack all over again.

She breathes easier once she’s outside, a closed door between her and the writhing pit of anxiety that the apartment’s become. The late afternoon air is a symphony of melting ice, cheerful plinking filling her ears as she hurries out to the waiting car. It’s probably only in the low fifties, but compared to the snowy chill of the last few days, it’s heaven.

Even more exquisite is the man behind the wheel, the one whose grin makes her heart stumble as she slides into the passenger seat. And with the soft thump of the door closing, they’re alone together. 

“Hi,” Aleks says softly.

“Hi,” Alina echoes.

He leans into her, and their kiss is hungry. Awkward. Perfect.

Alina’s skin thrills as he lingers, unwilling to let her go. Warmth skims against her face as he strokes her cheek with his knuckles, the touch feather-soft, and when the kiss breaks his eyes shine like black stars. “I missed you,” he says, his voice catching with emotion.

Alina grins. It’s always easier to admit things when he beats her to it. “I missed you, too.”

His eyes flick over her backpack, assaying her. “Got everything you need? Your clothes, your meds—”

“Yes, Daddy,” Alina says with a roll of her eyes.

“—your weed—”

The word bursts out of her in a strangled cry: “Wha- haat?

“Do you have your pipe thingy or whatever, that’s what I’m asking,” Aleks says, utterly unfazed.

“Uh, yes,” Alina admits, shamefaced, adding quickly, “and I’m really sorry, I should’ve said something, I know I should’ve asked before bringing it into your house

His lips stay stubbornly tilted up. “Alina, it’s all right, really. We’re not talking about black tar heroin.”

She frowns. The fuck? “That’s an oddly specific reference.”

Cards Against Humanity, ” he says by way of explanation, and the words make both of them snicker.

“Um … how did you know I’d smoked up outside your place?” she asks, fiddling with the cuffs of her jacket.

His smile fades, like her humiliation is contagious. “I have a cat camera in Mrs. Bates’s house, it’s motion-activated. I should’ve mentioned that—”

“It’s okay, it’s your house.”

“The night we were in the hot tub — it may’ve caught—” Aleks clears his throat, reddening. “I deleted it, of course—”

“Oh.” Us naked. Well, me. He’s acting like he stole priceless nudes, not caught a glimpse of her on grainy cat-cam footage. Not so terrible as all that. “Well next time … don’t,” Alina slyly suggests.

Well then…” Aleks blows out a breath, composing himself even as he peers into her soul. “Let’s get you home, I can tell you’re going to be a handful this weekend.”

Alina smirks at him as she buckles in. “Isn’t that the point?”


The silver-shot man lets her step just inside the basement door before pushing her against the wall and crushing his lips to hers. He slides his tongue into Alina’s mouth, ravenous, deepening the kiss as she whimpers. Her core is tight and tingling, her body responding instinctively to his seductive touch.

When he finally releases her and steps away, her knees quake. Her smile is equally shaky. “You certainly took your time jumping my bones.”

“Believe me, it took all the self-restraint that I had not to drag you into the backseat.” Aleks’s teeth glint behind his curved lips, the grin of a predator. “Come on.”

His hand swallows hers, and he leads her upstairs, the woodstove’s homey scent curling into her nose. Mrs. Bates blatts a welcome from the loveseat — and it all feels so familiar it’s as though Alina never left.

“How are you feeling about tomorrow?” Aleks asks as they shed their coats.

“Nervous,” Alina admits.

“You look nervous.”

She shoots him a wry glance. “Bet you’re enjoying yourself.”

“Only if it’s in good fun,” he says, his expression softening to a look that makes her heart skitter strangely in her chest. 

She nods, her smile crooked with happiness.

“Good.”

Aleks slides one arm around Alina’s waist, caging her good hand against his heart. His closeness is intoxicating, slurring her quiet words as his heart drums under her palm. “So how’s this all going to work?”

He narrows his eyes and tilts his head, giving the impression of thinking — but his words are sure, like he’s been waiting for her to ask. “Hang out as per usual tonight, get a good night’s sleep, have a lazy Saturday, then get dressed up and head out around four.”

“That sounds suspiciously laid-back, until it isn’t, ” Alina says, returning his probing stare even though it makes everything in her belly writhe with nerves.

“An apropos description.”

Only now does she realize they’re swaying gently, moving in place together. So completely synced up that she’d thought it was the world moving around them. “Are we dancing?”

“Seems that way,” Aleks says — and with a gentle press of his hand at her waist, he sends her into a twirl, then gently spins her back into his arms.

Doubt creeps in at the edge of her thoughts as she gazes up at his kindly face. “I wasn’t sure what to wear to the masquerade—”

“I actually have something for you,” he cuts in hesitantly. Offering, not commanding. “If you’d like.”

Alina cringes internally as she pastes on a polite smile. Fuck, the size is going to be all wrong, this is a trainwreck — “Oh, um, you didn’t have to—”

“I wanted to. Here…” He leads her over to his desk, where two small rectangular boxes are waiting, one twice as thick as the other. The box on the bottom looks oddly familiar, and her blood freezes. 

“Oh my god, are those shoes?

Aleks lifts one shoulder in a flustered shrug. “I checked your clothes for the sizes while you were asleep.”

At least he didn’t make a wild shot in the dark. “Sneaky bastard,” she says with a rueful shake of her head.

“I went a little larger on the shoe, just in case.”

The gold gladiator sandals are intricate, featuring adjustable straps that give her a glimmer of hope. By comparison, the thing he lifts from the smaller box is simpler: an unadorned white slip that looks like it’ll barely reach her mid-thigh.

“These might actually fit,” Alina reluctantly agrees. The sandals lie across her open hand, glinting like gilt ribbons. “Aleks … this is a lot of trouble to go to. I’ll pay you back—”

“You will do no such thing,” he says firmly. “I want it to be a special night for you. For both of us.”

Much as she hates to admit it, these have more flair than the black dress she’d panic-bought at the thrift store. And if it matters to Aleks, double the blessing. “What’ll you be wearing?”

Mischief glitters in his eyes. “You’ll see.”

“Do you want me to thank you properly, Daddy?” It’s in no way a terrible prospect, showing him her gratitude in a way she knows he likes — and it’ll help assuage the guilt of knowing he spent money on things for her. Nice ones, too. “Maybe im properly?”

Alina starts to sink to her knees, but then Aleks’s arm lashes about her waist, gathering her back to him as he stands at his full height. He clicks his tongue, admonishing her with a teasing shake of his head. “None of that ’til tomorrow night.”

Alina’s mouth drops open. “Are you serious?

“Poor little brat, you don’t like that, do you?” he coos, his voice dripping with disdainful pity.

Of course not. Alina’s inner butthead rouses with a roar, but she only regardly him coolly, pursing her lips. She presses her body against his, letting him feel her breasts and hips — and his eyes darken with lust. “You think you’ll be able to hold out that long, Daddy?”

“Yes, kitten. Because I have something you don’t.”

He’s already leaning toward Alina, and she lifts her face to his, waiting for his mouth to reclaim hers. “What’s that?”

The warmth of his breath heats her lips, but he stops a hairsbreadth shy of kissing her. “Self-control.”

Then Aleks pulls back, ducking out of the way as Alina growls and grabs a pillow from the loveseat to fling at his silvering head.


While they’re gaming. Curled up together on the loveseat. Crawling into bed that night.

All of Alina’s attempts at seducing him fail.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Aleks purrs as she wiggles her hips back toward him, grinding her arse against his hard length after he snaps off the bedside light.

“You know what I’m doing.”

She reaches back, seeking him beneath the blankets, but he catches her wrist and draws it in front of her. Embracing her firmly enough to prove his point. “Hush now. You need to sleep.”

“How am I supposed to sleep like this?” Alina grumbles.

“Just close your eyes and drift in space with me.”

She grumps in wordless discontent, but his heat is irresistible, and she melts into him. Floating in his arms until everything tilts, and she tumbles away into dreams.


Aleks is asleep beside her when she awakens, the combination of amber sunlight and a full bladder recalling her to consciousness. The morning chill urges her back to bed, and she creeps under the blankets gratefully. Not just for the lingering warmth of her own body that awaits her, but for him.

His face is relaxed in sleep, plush lips parted, black-and-silver hair mussed. She wants to touch him, cup her hand against his cheek to feel his beard scratch her palm, but that would wake him. Instead she only studies him, trying to memorize the arch of his thick brows, the prominences of his cheekbones, the sparse constellation of freckles that dance over his face.

  I love you.

The thought flashes through Alina’s mind, a thunderbolt from the void of her subconscious. It’s so startling that she physically twitches — yet even as she reels, the avalanche of emotion is undeniable.

oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck

She wants to laugh, weep, scream. The words shouldn’t fit, they shouldn’t … yet they do. It wasn’t that long ago that she was alone, bereft, torn to pieces. It’s too soon, too soon for this—

And yet.

Warmth suffuses Alina from within as she gazes at Aleks. The molten gold sensation not taking from her, not demanding, but pouring into every crack of her soul that she thought had shattered. Filling her heart.

I love you, Aleksander Morozova.

She doesn’t even dare mouth the words. Thinking them is terrifying enough.

Aleks stirs, and then his dark lashes flutter open. “What are you up to, Miss Starkov?” he asks, sleepily suspicious.

The answer doesn’t matter. In the next moment he’s swept her into his arms, pulling her against his chest to snuggle — and as she burrows into Aleks, there’s no time or space. Only now, only him, only them for a boundless eternity.


Alina almost thinks she’s got him when he joins her in the shower, his char-dark eyes roving over her naked body. Before she’s done sudsing her breasts and bum he’s hard, plush lips parted, eyes fierce with lust.

She deadass stares at him as she rinses off. “Still not going to fuck me?”

He shakes his head slowly. Not breaking their locked gazes.

“Well, then.” Alina lets her good hand stray between her thighs. “Might as well get myself off.”

Aleks catches her wrist, then the other one, lazily pinning her against the wall. His thick erection nudges into her belly, and she grits her teeth at the wave of longing that sweeps through her.

So close, so close

He leans close, taking no notice of the warm water pouring over their bodies. “Not.” He kisses the side of her neck. “Until.” Another graze of his lips against her skin, this time on the other side of her neck. “Tonight.” His mouth slants over hers, the hot blade of his tongue parting her lips and claiming her mouth.

Alina murmurs into him, and a rumble shakes his chest. He’s hungry for her, chasing her lips as she tries to turn away, demanding her submission until she yields.

Then, with a final chaste press of her lips, he steps away. Picking up the shampoo bottle, squirting some into his cupped palm as she stares in openmouthed disbelief.

“You’re evil,” she manages when her pulse steadies. “This, right here, is my villain origin story.”

Aleks only flashes his dazzling grin and dips under the water, raking his fingers through his hair. It flows like ink under the steaming cataract, plastered against his muscular neck as she drools over his naked body. Alina stares at the carved plane of his abdomen, the sharp vee of muscles that draw her gaze lower, the proud length that makes her bite her lip just to have something in her mouth. She could believe he’s a siren, sent to torment her into hysteria. Temptation incarnate.

She sucks her teeth, and reluctantly gets out instead of off.


The day that follows is relatively unremarkable, save for the tension that crackles between them like a living thing, palpable and unrelenting. Every faint touch, every look that passes between them is heightened a thousandfold; it’s like they’re on their first date again, hyperaware of each other’s presence. 

Alina scribbles away on the tablet — not working on a single piece the way she had the other day. She’s too fractured for that, spun up by the dark man’s sexual magnetosphere. Instead, frenzied lines scrawl from the stylus, figure drawings in scores of positions, couples locked in any number of poses, anonymous lovers striving toward ecstasy.

Then, when the sun slides down toward the far horizon, Aleks shuts his laptop with an authoritative snap. When Alina looks up, questioning him with a squint, he jerks his chin toward the stairs. “I think it’s time to get changed, don’t you?”

A wave of excitement crests in her gut, but she hides it with a casual shrug, tucking the stylus back into its slot in the tablet’s case. “I’m just following your lead, Daddy.”

He tugs her up into his arms, one hand settling at the small of her back, the other molding around the nape of her neck. His thumb strays along her jawline, forcing her chin higher, and his lips seal against her in a kiss that makes a supernova of desire flare through her.

When he breaks the kiss he still holds her there, regarding her haughtily. One dark brow twitches higher. “Daddy says get dressed.”

The gentle spank makes Alina yip with surprise — then he’s slipping away, headed toward the stairs.

Wait, fuck. In her hornie state she’s forgotten a crucial question. “What should I wear underneath?”

“Absolutely nothing,” he purrs with a delicious grin that makes her shiver.

Aleks disappears upstairs in the creaking of the steps, and Alina strips down. The slip fits snugly against her curves, the thin fabric leaving little to the imagination. Her hard nipples are prominent against the rolling landscape of her body, and a slit beside her thigh splits open nearly all the way to her hip.

The gladiator sandals’ straps are easy if time-consuming to adjust; she doesn’t notice the sweat beading on her skin until it drips from the tip of her nose, splashing against her shaking fingers.

“Fuck,” Alina hisses, mopping her brow with her discarded t-shirt. She hitches the slip higher, swiping the soft cloth under the curves of her breasts and scrubbing her back. Her meds are already packed in the bag she’s bringing, a round purse with a stylized pentagram, and she digs them out long enough to swallow her night doses.

The muffled hiss of water rises from the Room of Requirement, and she scowls. Fuck, he must be almost done. The light isn’t ideal down here, but she runs a quick gauntlet of makeup: dotting concealer on her eyelids in place of primer, curling her lashes, smudging smoky black shadow over her lids, scrawling on winged eyeliner that’s a pain to apply but resolute as tattoo ink when it dries, and applying a few hearty swipes of mascara.

An ancient pot of reddish-pink body glitter winks at her from the bottom of her bag, and as an afterthought, she thumbs a swipe onto each of her cheekbones and along the angry red line of her scar. A swipe of lip gloss and she’s done.

The overall effect is that of a feral, wild-eyed dryad. Anything more would probably be a risk; even this is bound to get ruined. If not before, then definitely during the Primal Hunt.

Another wave of exhilaration makes her sway in place. Her thighs and calves ache with the strain of what she’s been putting them through the last few mornings, but at least that baseline has given her a measure of confidence. 

And when it comes to risk awareness, there isn’t much more that can be done. The brace will keep her slack wrist stabilized, and the sandals cling tight to her feet as she goes up on her toes, testing the flexibility of the soles. They have a surprisingly deep tread, not the standard almost-sandpaper of other summery shoes, but a geometric crosshatching that’s reminiscent of hikers.

Whether from nerves or genuine chill, a shudder racks her body, and she moves to stand beside the woodstove. The hunk of dark metal is quiet, its belly dark, but enough heat still emanates from it to warm her pebbled skin.

The ceiling creaks, heavy footsteps tracing a path to the head of the stairs. She doesn’t dare to face him as the steps squeak with his descent, unsure of what she’ll find.

Who is Aleks when there’s only darkness to see?

“Alina.”

The low, musical way he says her name coaxes her into turning, and her eyes flare wide to find herself confronting a shadowy king. The black formal overcoat falls almost to his knee, richly embroidered with a motif that looks like skeins of living night. Heavy silver clasps line the front of the matching waistcoat, and his boots, though formal, look comfortable.

She’s positively naked in comparison — but the way he’s staring at her, blinking in awed astonishment … it’s like she’s dripping in silks and gems.

“Wow,” he breathes, his strong voice suddenly abandoning him.

Alina’s throat is bone-dry. “I could say the same.”

“Really.” 

She arches one eyebrow, letting the other slant low. Telegraphing her disbelief “You’re kitted out like that and I’m in this, but I’m the wow one?”

“You look perfect.” His boots click menacingly as he prowls forward and draws her into his arms, pulling her against him with an authority that makes her drag in a breath. His eyes are obsidian chips, blazing with an inner light. “Like you’re being sent to Crete.”

“Am I your sacrifice?” Alina murmurs.

And she must be, for when his lips find hers he’s a parched man drinking deep, his inner monster rousing to meet her own.

Chapter Text

Alina fidgets with her mantle as the forested road scrolls past, twilight blooming violet through the silhouettes of bare branches. It hadn’t even surprised her when Aleks produced the twin black cloaks from a closet, like he’d just had them hanging around. Even accounting for the unseasonably balmy weather and the promises of a bonfire, she’s relieved to have something soft and warm to wrap around herself. He’s so thoughtful.

Her round pentagram clutch is another reassuring anchor, and she reassures herself of its contents for the bazillionth time. Phone, meds, wrist brace, makeup

Aleks’s soft voice makes her jump. “What’s on your mind?”

“I’m worried I’m going to get … overwhelmed,” Alina admits. Anxiety crawls in her stomach, razor claws pricking. “I don’t want to ruin it for you.”

“You could never.” His hand settles on her thigh, another tether keeping her safe. “I will be with you the entire time, and we can leave whenever you’d like.”

She wraps her good hand over his, and he splays his fingers, catching hers between them. Squeezing gently as he spares her a warm glance.

The wrought iron gate stands open this evening, staffed by an actual live guard. The suited man consults a tablet when Aleks gives their names, and Alina catches the glint of an earpiece coiling away beneath his collar. Then they’re rolling again, the bower of the weeping willow welcoming them as they pass through into another world.

The vaulted aisle surrounding the dirt track feels even more sacred than in full daylight, its walls wrought of everything from the dying bracken to the graceful trees. Aleks leaves his window down, and a rush of scents perfume the car: the bitter green of plants, the dry heat of fire, and more things she can’t identify but make the nape of her neck prickle pleasurably.

“Are you ready?” Aleks purrs, suddenly smug.

“For the masquerade?”

“For this.

The arched track widens out, and suddenly the night is awash with vibrant colors. The formerly empty meadow is filled with the most bizarre vehicles Alina’s ever seen: a skeletal dragon, a Steampunk teapot, and a rocket car that reminds her of a Tatooinian pod all lumber nearby, filled with merrymakers. The art cars are accentuated with electric wire, orange and violet and emerald designs burning in the falling night — and she twitches, seatbelt snapping tight against her chest as a plume of flame erupts from the dragon’s snout, blazing across the rutted track in front of them.

Aleks doesn’t even bat an eye, just brakes to avoid the fireball. “Show-off,” he mutters goodnaturedly.

The dragon pivots, stopping short of the road. The driver — mounted in a saddle on the dragon’s neck, Alina now sees — waves their thanks, and the handful of passengers standing on its back grab its sturdy railing as the vehicle loops around, trundling back toward the heart of the meadow, mechanized tail lashing.

“You know them?” Alina demands, transfixed as the departing dragon brakes to allow a two-man TIE interceptor to cross in front of it.

“In passing. It’s a small enough community, and this is one of our high holidays.” Aleks’s expression is composed, but the way he squeezes her fingers betrays his excitement. “I’m glad you’re here.”

“Me, too,” she murmurs, utterly dazzled.

The mansion and its attached tower are the crown jewels of this beautiful riot, their intricate stick lines highlighted like those of the cars crawling through the field. Fire-spinners dance in the wide yard, seeming to levitate blinding sparks amid the dusk, and through a break in the ethereal traffic Alina catches a glimpse of a dot set apart from the exquisite bedlam. A ruby star shining in the far-off darkness, marking the threshold where the woods close in.

“Ah,” she murmurs. Exactly where the trail head is supposed to be.

“See something?”

“Um…” One of the art cars eclipses the crimson light, a moving platform of giant polka-dotted mushrooms splashed with shades of pink, orange, and deep blue — and Alina blinks, startled to recognize a waving silhouette aboard the hovering forest. “Genya!”

Genya’s grin is unmistakable even in the dusklight, and although it’s still too far to hear what she’s shouting, she points to the parking lot.

“I think she’s coming to meet us,” Alina tells Aleks as the mushroom platform slows and Genya hops off, trotting after them, following a line of paper lanterns that escorts the track down to the incredibly full gravel lot.

“Oh good,” Aleks says cheerfully — and her confusion must be written all over her face, because he chuckles. “What? I’ve been looking forward to meeting her properly.”

Alina’s baffled scowl deepens. “Really?”

“Of course. She’s important to you.”

Her smile is crooked, incredulous as she sinks back against the seat. Still not totally believing him. I don’t get to be this lucky. This happy.

Genya hurries over to meet them as they emerge from the parked sedan. Her white bandage mini dress and brown thigh-high boots pair perfectly with the dramatic coat that spills over her shoulders. Its gold sequins sparkle beautifully under the Electric Teakettle’s jewel-toned lights, and white faux fur lining pours out at her collar and cuffs to dramatic effect. Only the slim belt keeps it wrapped about her as she throws herself into Alina’s arms. “Alina, my love!”

For a few moments they just giggle with delight, clinging to one another amid the glorious pandemonium and gawking up at the improbable mansion. Genya’s tumbling auburn curls shine with the jewel-toned lights. “Can you believe—”

“I know, it’s completely, just—”

They’re still laughing when the dark man joins them. Alina reaches out to him, heart bursting as two of her favorite people on earth finally meet. “Genya, this is—”

“Parking lot smoocher!” Genya supplies happily. “Just kidding, I know who you are, Aleks.” She detangles from Alina enough to stick out her hand in greeting. “And if you’re not Aleks, well, my foot tastes delicious.”

“Genya.” He takes her hand — but instead of shaking, he gives a shallow bow and kisses her knuckles as she mouths a grinning oh my gawd at Alina. In any other situation the gesture might be weird or cringy, but in their surreal surroundings it works.

“Lovely to meet you,” Genya tells him as he straightens and they share an amiable grin. “I’ve heard nothing but good things.”

“Likewise,” Aleks agrees with a chuckle, then glances between them. “Shall we go in together?”

Genya hesitates. “If that’s all right?”

It takes Alina a distracted moment to realize that they’re both looking at her. “Oh! Of course, sorry!”

Aleks draws her good arm through his own, and Genya does the same with her damaged one, carefully holding Alina’s hand against her wide faux-fur cuff. Together their merry little band heads toward the Electric Teakettle, its double doors thrown wide to admit wanderers who flit through the balmy twilight like fireflies.


Although Alina is stone-cold sober, the Hallow Masquerade is so unearthly that she feels like she’s tripping. She’s Alice Liddell, tumbling away down a rabbit hole of beauty and splendor.

Fedyor and Ivan are there in the Teakettle’s entry hall to greet them, Fedyor welcoming Alina with his sunny smile as he takes her cloak. Ivan looks less curmudgeonly than usual, clasping forearms with Aleks and exchanging a few kind words with Genya. Alina’s startled to see them speaking with such obvious familiarity, but of course they must know each other; everyone here seems acquainted, at least on a passing basis, like Aleks said.

Everywhere Alina turns her gaze finds smiles, handshakes, embraces. It’s the same energy as the munch but amped up to a thousand, the joy streaming around her in intoxicating currents.

Genya soon vanishes through the crowd, waving to someone away down a densely packed corridor, and Aleks looks only too pleased that they’re alone together again. His hand rests at the small of her back as they navigate through the crush in the foyer — and as soon as the foot traffic thins out enough for them to walk side by side, his muscular arm slides around her waist.

Being safely tucked against Aleks lets Alina look around to her heart’s content. The thing that surprises her most is how normal everyone looks. On some level she’d assumed they were going to be surrounded by hordes of twentysomethings with toned bodies, and was dreading sticking out … but this is nothing of the sort. True, the other partygoers are wearing everything from baroque costumes to nothing at all, but they’re normal humans of a wide range of ages. The same kind of people she’d run into at the supermarket, not intimidating glamazonian gods.

And with that realization, Alina begins to relax.

Eyes rove over her, just as she regards others — with a sort of congenial curiosity. Smiles bloom when gazes meet, nods of acknowledgment, but it’s not the lewd leering that she’d be subjected to out in the vanilla world. A sort of distanced admiration that doesn’t make Alina shrink into herself, but stand straighter, unashamed.

The ballroom has been transformed into a pleasure salon, couches and chaise longues scattered through the space, pillow pits interspersed throughout. For being such a large chamber it’s pervaded by a library hush, only faint whispers reaching Alina’s ears as couples and groups recline together, cuddling, caressing, sighing.

A leather-clad man stands on the dais at the far end of the ballroom, tails of his flogger dangling beside his leg, flicking impatiently. His scene partner is manacled to a huge St. Andrew’s cross by their ankles and wrists, a wide leather strap fixed around their waist. Their arse is facing outward, already pinked from an impact play warm–up, and Alina lets Aleks draw her down onto a serpentine recamier as the action recommences.

He settles her not beside her but on his lap, his arm still slung around her body as he leans against the couch’s azure velvet arm. The slap of leather against wet flesh pierces the quiet, and the dark man hitches her closer, his breath heating the curve of her neck.

The flogger’s tail hisses through the air, striking the bottom with expert precision — and Alina bites her lip to keep from crying out as Aleks presses a soft kiss to her skin.

“Shall we stay awhile and watch, pet?” he murmurs, the low words tickling the shell of her ear.

She nods, gasping softly as his hand moves higher to clutch her breast. He shifts his leg, only barely, but suddenly his thigh is between her own. Pressing against her crux and forcing her attention there as he lazily kneads her tit.

So this is how it’s going to be.

Alina doesn’t bother to hide her smirk. She arches her back like she’s stretching, grinding her arse against Alek’s hardening length and drawing a hiss from his plush lips. He grazes her earlobe with his teeth, and she stifles a shudder of pleasure, rolling her hips against his lap in retaliation.

“What do you think you’re doing, sweetheart?” he whispers. 

She offers a one-shouldered shrug. “If you’re going to work me up, it’s only fair I return the favor.”

The laugh rumbles deep in Aleks’s chest, and he captures her nipple, tugging gently. “Brat.”


They watch for what might be minutes or hours, Alina forcing her eyes to stay trained on the poor beleaguered bottom on the wooden cross. Her slip rides up in back until Aleks’s trousered thigh presses into her cleft, but he doesn’t seem distressed in the slightest.

“You’re going to have a wet spot on your pants,” Alina murmurs, trying to ignore the primal need that’s roaring through her as he cups her breasts, dragging her nails over the soft swells.

He chuckles quietly. “That’s my cue to rehydrate you, kitten.”

Alina’s reluctant to leave, but he’s right; she’s parched. They make their way to the dining room, where one end of a long wooden table has been stocked with supplies. Everything from bags of chips to fresh fruit — even little finger sandwiches, each tray bearing a card with a description of its contents.

Aleks fishes a pair of water bottles out of a wooden chest filled with ice, and nudges one into Alina’s hands, both of them laughing when she drains half the bottle at once. They stroll through the vendors’ room, admiring displays of collars and cuffs, chains and rope. Alina’s astonished by the sheer scope of what’s available, taking time to examine rainbow-colored genitalia candles and a case of nipple clamps.

They drift through the maze of opulent rooms, carnal explorers. Deeper in the mansion’s halls they find darkling chambers where silent audiences pay rapt attention to more intimate scenes, each strikingly different from the others. A sea of rainbow strings rises from one naked body like a human harp, tethered by the flash of silver teeth. Another bottom trembles at the touch of violet lightning that arcs from a silver wand. In a third, an elderly woman drums flaming tools against their scene partner’s naked back, ribbons of flame trailing through the half-light.

But perhaps Alina’s favorite room is the one that’s the loudest, set off in the bottom floor of the tower away from everything else. A sign at the far end of the breezeway declares Noise GLADLY encouraged! — and riotous laughter heralds Sexy Cyclone, where naked “combatants” struggle to stay upright as a caller announces where to move their limbs on a multicolored game sheet.

Here again Aleks insists she perch on his lap, though it’s not without good cause. Seats are few and far between, and it makes something glow hot in her chest to see how proud he is to show her off. Once or twice he fists her slip high enough that people across the circle must be able to see her naked pussy; lingering gazes confirm it, but just as quickly he smooths the thin fabric back into place.

Her stomach twists with delight. It’s hardly out of place here, where more than a few people are stark naked — and the certainty that she’s safe among this company means she can actually enjoy being on display.

It’s new. Exciting. And with Aleks draped around her, casually possessive, heart skips with his every touch.

“Everyone here wishes they were me,” he growls into her ear, softly enough that no one can overhear. His arm goes tight around her waist, holding her deliciously close, his hard cock throbbing under the curve of her ass as she tries not to writhe with lust. “Everyone here wishes they were touching you like this.”

As many curious gazes find Alina, just as many are settled on Aleks — he simply doesn’t seem to notice. He’s too wrapped up in her.

Alina wraps her good arm around his, leaning back in his embrace. No one here can compare to him.

My Dom. My Aleks.

I love you .

She’ll tell him when they’re alone again. Yes, that will be the perfect end to this glorious night. 


The evening rolls on, excitement coiling tighter in Alina with every passing hour. As thrilling as the masqerade is with its myriad delights, the knowledge of what’s still ahead makes her mind lurch drunkenly whenever she thinks of it.

Botkin’s whip demonstration is winding down by the time they emerge from the mansion, making their way around the clutch of observers to where the bonfire blazes bright. The breeze coasting across the lake is warm, zephyrs unfurling over her bare skin like a touch of satin — but Alina still shivers.

It takes the bonfire’s molten heat to chase away the jittery feeling running through her bones. The air quavers around the orderly pile of burning logs, but Alina’s neck prickles as she picks out dark shapes flitting through the trees beyond the parking lot. “Who’s over there?”

“Other guests.” Aleks draws her back against his chest, wrapping both arms around her, nuzzling against her in a way that makes her want to purr. “The orchard is the only place on the property where it’s appropriate to fuck.”

Wait … “The only place?” Alina murmurs.

“Well, there and the hunting grounds, but that’s for tonight only.” He gently turns, guiding her gaze to the opposite side of the property, where the sprawling meadow awaits — and beyond it, three red dots at the boundary of field and forest. “Why do you think the trails are lit?”

The traffic has thinned considerably; in fact, all of the art cars have gathered near the road, leaving the flat, grassy expanse empty. Alina’s gut shivers with nerves as she finds the marker that’s closest to the water. It’s only a hundred feet closer than the others, but every tiny advantage might prove crucial. 

“Oh, is that what they are — trailheads?” she asks with an oblivious smile.

The question must sound innocent enough, because his answering chuckle is thoroughly devious.

Alina twists in Aleks’s embrace, turning to face him and laying her good hand on the plane of his chest. Cool smirk notwithstanding, his heart is slamming under his embroidered jacket. “Are you excited to chase me down, Professor?”

“Perhaps,” he says with a nonchalant shrug — but one of his brows arches faintly, and his black eyes dance with challenge.

Movement in her peripheral vision snags her attention. Past Aleks’s shoulder, Botkin makes his way toward a stone pillar that sprouts from the ground near the lake, only waist-high and topped with a brass bell no taller than a folio. The ornate hammer in his hand glints in the firelight, and Alina starts at the resounding clang as he strikes the bell, its clarion voice echoing across the lake.

The stocky man exchanges a knowing look with Aleks as he strolls back to the mansion, but walks past them without uttering a word. Just a quiet, chuffing laugh that might be Alina’s imagination.

She narrows her eyes at Aleks, a thrill running down her spine. “What’s all that?”

“The call to adventure,” he answers with the white flash of a grin.

“Oh god,” Alina groans, rolling her eyes. “You’re not one of those professors, are you?”

“No, but bell to summon the sexy weirdos for the primal chase was a bit of a mouthful,” laughs, lacing his fingers through hers and drawing her along after Botkin.

“Oh.” Abruptly her legs are lead, and she feels like she’s going to be sick. “Oh fuck.”

His dark eyes search her, and she can feel his concern. “You’re sure you want to do this?”

I could stop all this. Say no. For a heartbeat the urge to bail almost overcomes her, the awful squiggly feeling in the bottom of her gut shrieking to run — but she clamps her lips together. Nods. “Just nervous. I think I’ve been building it up in my mind.”

“Honestly? Me too,” Aleks admits with a wan tilt of his lips. “I want to be just the right amount of scary, not give you more nightmares.”

“It’d give me a break from all the moving dreams,” she teases, but his mouth only tightens. He’s so afraid of breaking me.

Being cared for still feels strange.

“Come on, you sexy weirdo. The primal chase awaits.” Alina bumps against him affectionately, coaxing his bearded face into a proper smile, and they keep walking until they reach the knot of people spilling out of the mansion. Fedyor and Ivan hurry around the area lighting torches — and Alina’s mouth quirks at the sight of the little stone courtyard where not so very long ago, she, Aleks, and the house founders passed such a pleasant afternoon.

“Sasha!” Baghra waves from the courtyard, beckoning him over.

Aleks squeezes her hand, drawing her against him as they stop. “This is where I leave you.”

“Oh?” Her heart thrums, a hummingbird beating at her ribcage. “ Leave me?”

“Temporarily,” he amends. He nods to a little group forming around Botkin. “You should head off with the runners over there. Botkin will explain the specifics of what comes next.” He hesitates, brows knitted again with that worry for her, so plain that her chest cramps. “Last chance to ditch out.”

Alina gazes up at him, at his dear, sweet face. Drinking him in. “See you on the other side,” she says, the words thick with emotion.

He lets her hand slip through hers, but only to wrap both arms around her — and Alina runs her fingers up the iron curve of his neck, twining them in the silken fall of his hair.

Their lips crash together in a hungry, desperate kiss, and adrenaline sears through Alina’s veins as they cling to each other. He’s holding her like they’re saying goodbye, not for a few minutes, but in some final way. Like there’s no turning back.

Even though she knows it isn’t real, the thought guts her. When they break apart it’s too soon. It’s always too soon.

But it’s time.

A final kiss on her forehead and the silvershot man steps back, fixing her in his breathtaking black gaze as he holds her at arm’s length. Still reluctant to let her go. 

“Don’t forget to take care of your wrist,” he reminds her — and she nods.

With a final backward glance he heads off toward the small group assembling around Baghra, and Alina turns the other way, toward the handful of people gathering around Botkin. She digs into her purse, fastening the brace around her left wrist as she walks, trailing Botkin as he leads the others around a corner of the building.

Rainbow sparks erupt beside Alina and she turns to find Genya falling into step beside her, sequined coat flashing under the Teakettle’s vibrant lights. “Thought I’d find you out here,” she says, grinning.

Wait — Alina’s eyes flare wide. “Are you—”

“—running? In these heels?” Genya laughs. “Hell no, babe, I’m just here to rubberneck with everyone else.” She nods to the bulk of the crowd, now milling between the Teakettle and the bonfire, and a stone plummets in Alina’s gut.

“Oh good, an audience,” she grouses, only partly kidding.

“Biggest bunch of voyeurs you’ll ever meet,” Genya agrees.

Fuck, my bag. She taps it, trying to ignore the way her fingers are trembling. “Would you mind babysitting this for me?”

“Sure, darling.”

Alina eyes Genya as she unslings her pentagram bag, surrendering it to her friend. “How’s it going tonight?”

“Everything I dreamed of and more,” Genya says, but disappointment flickers in her eyes. Then she brightens, and it’s gone. “Did you catch Sexy Cyclone?”

“When that guy fell facefirst into the other one’s—”

Yup, I’m surprised you didn’t hear me howling,” Genya snorts, and they lean against each other, giggling as they walk.

“I think I did, ” Alina realizes. She hadn’t been focused on anything but the game and the feeling of Aleks’s hands roaming over the thin slip.

Genya’s body suddenly goes ramrod-stiff. Alina follows her gaze to where a familiar figure is headed in the opposite direction, only a silhouette in the dim light. “Isn’t that David?”

“Dunno,” Genya mutters, but her flushing cheeks betray her for a liar.

Alina nudges her arm. “Go talk to him.”

Genya pouts prettily. “But I was going to stay and watch you take off!”

“I will probably faceplant two seconds in, you won’t miss anything.” Alina bumps her arm again. “Go on, ask him about his restoration work. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

“Alright, fine, Mum,” Genya grumbles, but Alina can hear the nervousness buried in her playful tone. “ Gods I hate it when you make sense.”

“I know, I suck.” Alina slaps Genya’s butt, and her friend yelps, but heads off after David.

Then Alina’s alone. Just Botkin, and the handful of other runners, and the darkness ahead.

Chapter Text

Alina’s heart is drumming in the cavern of her chest by the time Botkin finishes running through his gruff overview, laying out the scope of what’s in bounds, the safe word to scream in case of true danger ( coda ), and a few strategies to escape their pursuers, most of which involve zizagging and avoiding a few glowstick-outlined gopher holes. His terse syllables and solemn, guarded expression — so different from his warm laughter that afternoon at tea — makes her stomach tense so hard she tastes acid.

Thin as it is, Alina’s slip feels like a luxury. Two of the other runners are completely naked, shifting to and fro on their bare feet, a testament to the cold ground. Thank you, Aleks. She’s grateful for the decent tread on her gladiator sandals, too, and runs over each of the tiny gold buckles again, ensuring that they’re comfortably tight around her calves and feet. It’s only marginally reassuring, but right now she’ll take anything she can get. 

One person peels off from their group, backing out of the hunt with an abashed smile, leaving four of them to decide their trajectories. No one else seems particularly keen on striking out toward the trailhead closest to the lake, so even before they head back toward the bonfire, Alina knows she’ll have a straight shot to cover.

If her trembling thighs don’t betray her first.

Their tiny group waits just around the corner of the Teakettle, tucked into the lee where the mansion meets the breezeway to the tower. Alina rubs her clammy palms along her slip’s smooth fabric. The ground is still hard from the wintry chill of the last few weeks, and her stomach lurches as she imagines how it’s going to feel getting tackled into it. Probably like hitting concrete. Her heart’s not even beating so much as thrumming, making her whole body shake as she scuffs her feet, testing the sandals against the grass.

Jovial chatter issues from around the corner, laughter flickering like the bonfire’s light — but the three faces looking back at Alina are pale with anxiety. I probably look the same. She forces a smile, one that feels Cheshire-wide, but a couple of the others mirror it. Lips curving weakly as they wait for Botkin to return, giggling nervously, all of them too keyed up to even speak.

Fifteen seconds, Alina reminds herself. Fifteen seconds.

Less time than she was expecting, but hopefully it’ll be enough of a head start.

The sea of voices around the corner swells, cheerful static, and Alina cocks her head as something stirs within the wall of sound. A rhythmic pulse rising, the voices coalescing into a chant.

Alina’s mouth goes dry as she makes out the word.

Prey, prey, prey!

A tendril of shadow lengthens, drawing out from the others, not flickering like the bonfire’s lights but steady. Her stomach nearly falls out of her arse as someone rounds the corner, but it’s only Botkin. 

He jerks his head toward the bonfire. “Let’s go.”

Alina’s throat cracks painfully as she gulps down a breath. Her heart is slamming in her veins, but she squares her shoulders. Exchanges tight-lipped nods with the others — and though she doesn’t look back, she can feel them falling in behind her, trailing the musclebound older man back into sight of the bonfire.

Prey, prey, prey! ” the crowd roars in a single voice.

They’re gathered in a semicircle, a human cavea, their faces unfamiliar save for lone outliers here and there. Their eyes bright with excitement. Hunger … but not cruelty. No, it’s admiration.

Where’s Aleks? Butterflies shudder in Alina’s gut as she searches the enthusiastic crowd, their garb everything from intricate, glowing retrofuturism to nothing at all. Nowhere does she find the man whose dark eyes smolder into her soul.

Two lines have been chalked on the grass, one before the other, separated by about fifteen feet of space. Alina’s thighs tremble with adrenaline as she follows Botkin to the foremost mark — the starting line, it must be — as she stares at the other one. 

Where are they?

As if in answer to her unvoiced question, the crowd’s chant crescendos, and Alina sucks in a sharp breath as the hunters coalesce among the crowd, striding through their ranks from beyond. Three of them are unfamiliar, distracted, already leering at her companions.

The sight of Aleks nearly drops her to her knees.

Gone are his glasses, along with the rest of his thoroughly proper outfit. He’s bare-chested, clad only in his dark joggers and a pair of battered sneakers. She barely takes in his sartorial change before his dark eyes capture hers. He’s transformed — he even holds himself differently, his usual strolling gait infused with predatory swagger.

His gaze is a live wire, sending electric jolts skittering through her body. Mesmerizing her.

Fuck.

Baghra appears from thin air, standing beside the other line as the hunters prowl forward. A couple of them are naked like their prey, but Alina can hardly spare them another glance. Aleks commands her attention, her skin pebbling with arousal and warning as she stares back at him.

Just as her blood starts to run cold, he winks. So quickly that it might’ve been a trick of the light, if not for the way his mouth tightens, too. Holding back a smirk, the outer corners of his eyes crinkling.

Heat rushes between Alina’s legs as her lips tilt up. 

Mine.

Baghra clicks her tongue at one of the hunters as she strays too close to the chalk line. The others are shifting to and fro, lions behind glass, but Aleks simply watches Alina with that simmering expression. Not wasting an iota of his attention or energy. It’s all focused on her.

The knowledge that he’s so close yet incapable of touching her is giddying, and Alina sticks out her tongue.

From the way his chin drops, sharpening his stare, she knows that whatever trouble she was already in has doubled — and a frisson of something ancient lances through her. Excitement and dread, passion and terror, a hundred nameless emotions all woven together like skeins of stardust and shadow.

But she doesn’t have to name them, doesn’t even have to hold them all inside her. They flow through Alina like her breath, tumbling through her nerves in a wondrous cataract.

Botkin exchanges a nod with Baghra, and the thickset man strides away from the starting lines, heading toward where the brass bell glimmers from the firelight. Alina’s stomach swoops.

Oh fuck, it’s happening.

“Participants take your positions,” Baghra calls, her clear voice cutting through the crowd’s riotous chant.

She needs to move, but he’s staring into her soul.

Her monster.

Alina’s instincts scream in protest as she turns her back to him, but she must. The groove of her spine tingles with awareness as she toes into the packed earth, digging shallow divots for footholds. Hopefully it’ll be enough purchase.

The onlookers’ howling peaks as Botkin lifts the ornamental hammer again, the metal glinting like a silver fang as he raises it high. Alina’s heart is beating out of her chest, that slithering feeling in her gut working its way outward, seething through her muscles.

“Ready,” Baghra calls. “Set—”

In a flash of memory, Alina isn’t here but in some long-ago schoolyard playing tag, gripped by the selfsame terrified glee as she flees whoever’s been dubbed It.

It’s all the same. Nothing’s changed but the stakes.

Run run run

She’s been waiting for days, priming herself for this exact moment. The golden clang of the hammer striking the bell unleashes her own inner monster, and she plunges forward into the darkness.

The crimson polestar burns ahead, and an answering fire sears through Alina’s muscles as she darts through the meadow. There’s only the thud of her feet against the unforgiving ground, primal instincts rearing up to claim her mind.

go go go

Breath saws in and out of her lungs, a ragged rhythm that intersperses her footfalls. Her thighs and calves sing like violins of flesh and blood, the timpani of her heartbeats filling out the rebel yell that is her.

Finally unfettered, Alina blazes like a star.

Free.

She’s deep in the heart of the hunting grounds when the bell cries out again. A chill  rushes down her spine, and she puts on another burst of speed, the simmering pain in her muscles rising as she pushes her body to its limit.

He’s coming. She knows it without looking — she can feel him behind her, a shadow in the night.

A scream rends the air, a bloodcurdling cry that sets Alina’s teeth on edge. It cuts off so abruptly that she almost stops, almost turns her head before she remembers the monster hard on her heels.

She’s his prize, just as he is hers. He’s Hades and she’s Persephone, and soon, so soon, he’ll claim her as his consort. The shadow chasing her feels closer than ever, his footsteps shaking the earth, his breaths rasping so close—

Alina can’t hear anything through her body’s savage song, but the ruby light is growing brighter, bigger ahead. Between that and the rising moonlight the trail is a ghostly path before her, a dotted line of paper lanterns leading away into the tangled woods. They’re crimson will-o’-the-wisps, calling to her. Beckoning her to safety.

Almost there.

More cries go up behind her, animal shrieks that are stifled as quickly as the first. The ground changes from grass to dirt beneath her feet, tiny rocks embedded in the time-smoothed dirt like gemstones.

ALINA! ” her monster roars from the darkling plain behind her, and she shivers with ecstatic terror.

The trailhead maws before her, a crimson-and-sterling tunnel through the forest. She plunges into its embrace, gratitude washing through her as the wide world narrows to this crazed path through the unknown.

No choices. No decisions.

All she can do is run.

Yes, some inner voice whispers. Her inner and outer worlds are aligned, twin planes that are in sync for this all-too-transient night, a magical feywild coming into conjunction with her mundane world.

Spectral footsteps crash through the forest, and Alina spares a glance over her shoulder, but she can’t see anything. Not given the trail’s curved line carving through the slice of pine-scented woods. Something else moves through the underbrush on the other side of the trail, and she catches the furry lump of an opossum scuttling away into the dark.

A root catches her foot, and she stumbles but manages to right herself before hitting a mossy tree trunk. The scaly bark scratches her right arm, but she caroms off and keeps running.

Her throat is raw from her gasping breaths as she bursts out the end of the trail and sand slides beneath her soles. I made it!

The cove is larger than it seemed from the satellite images, a sliver of sand running like a ribbon between a grassy hollow and the lake. The Electric Teakettle is lost to sight beyond the peninsula of an untamed fen that begins a stone’s throw from where she’s standing.

Alina spins wildly, trying to get her bearings, wincing at more distant shrieks from the hunting ground. The wild howls pebble her skin, and she flits closer to another red lantern bobbing on a branch further back on the wedge of grass, the end of the middle path. 

I’ll be able to see him coming from here, get a head start running back

A twig cracks beside her, and Alina turns just in time to see the shadowed figure hurtle out of the mouth of the middle trail.

Arms crush her close to a broad, muscular chest as the world cartwheels — and the man grunts as they hit the ground, cradling her to absorb the brunt of the impact.

Aleks. She’d know his scent, his embrace, his heat anywhere.

He pulls her beneath him, and before she can draw breath his lips are crushed to hers in a brutal kiss. He shoves his tongue into her mouth as she gasps, his panting breaths matching her own, his body unrelenting against hers. Caging her down against the cool grass, utterly unbothered by the way she struggles against him.

Yes. She sets her good hand against his chest and shoves hard, but he doesn’t even budge. Instead her own muscles buckle, and her cunt cramps with need.

His beard scrapes against her beautifully as he kisses the hollow beneath her ear, her throat, even the pink weal of the scar slashed across her chest. She snarls as he moves lower, but his hand wraps around her throat, pushing her down against the grass. His touch firm but not cruel.

He sucks and bites her through the white shift dress, turning her growls to whimpers of pleasure, soaking the fabric until it clings to her skin. He readjusts his hips, and she cries out as his hardening cock nudges into the crux of her thighs. Her slip doesn’t cover her pussy in the slightest; the skimpy skirt is already rucked up past her hips. there’s only the soft fabric of his joggers between her sex and his, wet and rasping against her crease, his stiff length rubbing against her just right to make her moan.

Aleks’s chuckle could freeze Hell itself.

One of her spaghetti straps tugs, then snaps as he bites through it, and he paws the thin fabric out of the way to bare her breast. He nuzzles against her peaked nipple, licking and sucking, teasing her with his teeth. Still she tries to fight him, but he’s bigger. Stronger. 

Right now her body belongs to Aleks … and she loves it.

His mouth is a thousand times hotter against her naked skin, and Alina arches her back, trying to shove against him. He gives that lazy laugh again, thoroughly untroubled, flicking the tip of his tongue against the swollen knot of nerves as punishment.

No words pass his lips. That heightens every sensation, anchoring her in her body.

He twists his hips, and for a fraction of a moment Alina thinks he’s relenting. Then a guttural cry twists out of her as he shoves his hand against her pussy.

She must be soaked because his fingers slip against her easily, parting her slit, drawing circles through her folds, thumbing the stiff peak of her clit. He hooks his fingers into her, and even though she doesn’t know how many of his thick digits are inside her, it’s not enough. It’s not his cock.

He leans over her again as he works her, not quite kissing her, but nuzzling into her as she whines. Like he’s savoring her helpless pleasure, stroking her inner walls with practiced movements meant to undo her utterly.

Alina makes one final bid for escape, but he has her pinned too well. The corded muscles of his arms stand out in sharp relief in the moonlight, and he settles himself over her again, forcing her thighs wide enough to admit his narrow hips.

He cups her cheek, thumb resting beside the corner of his mouth as he shoves his waistband down. His length thuds against her lower belly, hard and thick and silken all at once, moving against her skin as he guides himself to her.

Alina moans through gritted teeth as his broad tip finds her pussy, and with a snap of his hips he plunges into her to the hilt.

Someone screams in her voice — but not with pain. With triumph.

He belongs here, inside her, seated perfectly. 

Mine.

Aleks throbs in her cunt, molten metal. His entire massive body trembling as hers clamps tight around his length, gripping him harder. 

“Alina…” His voice is a breathless rasp, awed somehow. Like her name is a prayer. “ Fuck.

He slips his arms under her ribs, one huge hand cradling her head as the other wraps around the top of her good shoulder. Lifting her, pulling her closer, like he’s desperate for every bit of her as he starts to move inside her.

His strokes are harsh with need, and she welcomes each brutal advance, stars bursting behind her eyelids at the bittersweet bliss of him bottoming out inside her. His raw cock pistons in her pussy, demanding her pleasure as he chases his own.

Every wordless grunt makes her clench tighter.

Aleks…

Alina can’t keep up the pretense anymore, she’s aching to hold him — and she wraps her arms around his shoulders as he pounds into her. His mouth angles over hers, and he growls into her throat, a low rumble that’s almost a purr. Every sharp thrust in her belly coaxes her closer to the edge, gilded threads weaving an unfathomable pattern in her womb.

There’s nothing in the world but him. Her conqueror. 

Her conquest.

Give me everything … give me all of you…

His tempo changes, his fingers bruise-tight on her flesh as he ruts into her, quickening. Fucking her ruthlessly, claiming her breaths, kissing her in a savage tangle of teeth and tongues.

Alina bites Aleks’s lower lip, and he fucks into her harder for it, groaning. His cock is still thickening in her core, twitching, his ridges grinding against her just right. It won’t take much to push her over the peak into that beautiful oblivion.

She drags her fingernails over his back, and his body stiffens on top of her. His measured violence just what she needs to get off, the pinch of resistance against her cervix and his girth both plying her body like an instrument.

Somehow, even without words, they can still feel each other’s desire.

“Mine,” she whispers into his lips. “You’re mine.”

“Yes,” Aleks breathes.

Then she’s tipping over the brink, heaving sobbing breaths as she shatters with rapture.

The dark man on top of her shakes, deep temblors running through his massive frame. It’s as though the sound of her coming is enough to drag him into infinity along with her. His thrusts become frenzied, burying himself in her over and over as her pussy clenches — and he comes with a roar, sheathing himself in her with staccato strokes. Driving deep as his searing cum floods into her.

“Alina…” Aleks nuzzles into her, covering her skin with kisses as her cunt milks a few more spurts of spend from him. They gasp together as his thick shaft twitches inside her. “Jesus fuck …”

“Thought you said no one makes it to the far side,” she teases between panting breaths.

One of his shoulders moves in a faint approximation of a shrug. “Guess it’s a night of firsts.” Aleks licks his lips, and even in the near-darkness she can see the flicker of uncertainty in his eyes. “Alina, I—”

“Don’t be sorry. Please,” she says quickly, before he can take anything back. She combs his hair back from his face with her fingers so he can see her broad grin. “This was … it was everything.

“It’s not that, I—” He cuts himself off with a shake of his head and a crooked smile. “Never mind. It can wait.”

He presses his lips to hers, softly now. His hunger slaked but still simmering, just like hers.


The moon is well above the horizon by the time they limp back to the Teakettle. One side of her slip dress now hangs noticeably higher than the other, the torn spaghetti strap tied shut, but the warmth radiating from Aleks drives away the evening chill.

“Aww, look at the state of this poor thing,” Alina grumbles playfully, smoothing her begrimed slip against her body as they find their way back into the mansion’s glowing lights. In addition to the torn strap, the underdress is stained with grass and dirt, probably beyond repair. “It’s ruined.”

Aleks’s arm is slung over her shoulder, and he pulls her closer to kiss her forehead without breaking stride. “Mmhmm.”

Oh. So that was the point of dressing her in virginal white; to delight in defiling it. Of course. “Not just a little proud of yourself, are you?”

“Not a bit.” Aleks grins roguishly, twanging the tied-together strap of her slip with his forefinger. “Might even frame this thing.”

Alina snorts, rolling her eyes. “You’re ridiculous.”

“I’m only maybe sixty percent kidding.”

She pokes him in his ridiculously toned abs, pleased at his startled yelp. “Don’t you dare.”

“Why not?” He flashes his thick brows, impish. “I did buy it, after all.”

“If you move a single book to make room for this filthy thing—”

“I don’t know if you’d noticed, but I’m quite fond of filthy things,” Aleks teases with another fond squeeze of her shoulders.

Alina goes to poke him again, but he’s prepared this time, catching her wrist before she can strike. “Oh, is that what I am to you? Dirty?” 

“Of course not, you lovely creature.” His smile fades to that same strange melancholy she saw for a moment in the cove, and he stops, drawing her hand up to his heart. “You’re … precious to me.”

Alina snickers. “Thanks, Smeagol.”

“No, I mean, I—” The older man clears his throat, visibly flustered. His heart thudding a wild tattoo in his chest, hammering against her palm. “That is, I—”

Her heart stumbles strangely at his look. He’s serious.

“Aleks!” They both look ahead, following the shout. Fedyor waves enthusiastically from a table that’s been set up bearing a red cross. Some of the other couples are milling around nursing scrapes and bruises; through the ballroom windows it seems like the party is still going strong. “Come on, you’re the last ones back.” 

“You…?” Alina prompts as they keep walking.

Aleks blinks, and even before he speaks she knows the moment’s lost. “I … need to put on some clothing,” he finishes, chagrined. His silvering hair glints as he nods to her. “I’ll rustle up your cloak, too.”

“You’re not going to get looked over?”

“I will. Once I’m dressed.” 

He leans down to brush his lips against hers, and liquid fire tips through her veins, spilling through her entire body at his mellow touch. Her thighs are still sticky with her arousal and his cum, but her aching pussy tightens with renewed hunger.

Then he drops his arm from her shoulders, giving her arse a firm, fond pat. “Go, let Fedyor take a look at you. Unless you want me to stay?”

“No, it’s alright,” Alina reluctantly allows. Baghra and Botkin are both nearby — and more than thinking, she knows she’s safe here. But even a few minutes away from Aleks will seem like forever, especially in this surreal place.

She watches him stride off into the house, admiring that saunter in his step, the way he looks back at her, stealing a final look. No sooner has he vanished inside than Genya appears beside her, sequined coat sparkling. “There you are, darling. I was beginning to worry.”

“All good,” Alina assures her, throwing in a smirk for good measure. “I got to the far side.”

“Did you.”

Genya is pale, distracted — and Alina’s stomach lurches. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Genya answers quickly. Too quickly. Her expression guarded, her gaze unsettled.

Alina’s gut twists harder. Nothing ever rattles Genya. Ever. “Okay, so you’re being weird, and it’s making me nervous. How did things go with David?”

“Went well.” Genya’s smile is as wan as the rest of her face, the color sapped from her skin. This is nothing like the bubbly, delighted Genya that Alina left here before the hunt. “Yeah, really well, actually.”

What the fuck happened? Alina’s heart starts to race, each beat more sickening than the last. “— but?

“It can wait.”

Her friend’s syllables are too clipped, and Alina bristles, a nauseating heat oozing over her skin. “Genya, I swear to all things unholy, if you don’t tell me right now —”

“Alright.” Genya sags, defeated, but her hazel eyes are bright with worry. Her brows lift in the middle, and Alina’s stomach plummets. “Remember how you asked me to ask about Aleks’s ex-girlfriend?”

“Luda. Yeah.” The nape of her neck prickles. “Did you find out why they broke up?”

“They … didn’t break up,” Genya says carefully, like each word is a land mine ready to blow.

Alina’s vision squares as she scowls at Genya. The fuck?

“Alya… Luda had cancer.” Genya licks her lips. and she barely manages to whisper the last two words, soft like an apology: “She died.”

Chapter Text

Time stops. There’s only the bonfire’s harsh crackle, wooden bones snapping, splintering as they’re consumed by fire. The rest of the world has gone still.

Cancer.

Luda died.

Luda died from cancer.

The words fit together, puzzle pieces that interlock but refuse to make sense. Alina’s mouth is dry as dust, her voice barely a croak. “What?”

“David, he told me…” Genya trails off, her amber eyes owlish with worry. “I’m so sorry.”

“Oh,” Alina says stupidly, and the word reverberates through the hollow void that used to be her body. Her heart is racing, galloping as her mind pirouettes drunkenly in its wake. “Oh.”

“He said it was cancer, and it was f-fast.” Genya’s face pinches on the last word, and she gestures helplessly. “That’s all he said … I dunno if that means anything.”

Alina can only blink, her stomach knotted with shock and misery.

Cancer.

She died. 

She died from cancer.

Alina inhales through her nose, but it isn’t pine she smells, it isn’t darkness surrounding her. It’s bright fluorescent light beating down on her from overhead, the sharp perfume of antiseptic coiling into her nose — it’s pissing in a specimen collector, it’s saline fizzing through her veins, it’s alarms screaming as someone a few rooms away codes, it’s the wretched weakness that’s claimed her, the isolation room alone, her white blood cells screaming because they’re dying, dying—

Alina’s abdomen cramps, wringing the breath from her lungs in a strangled sob. Her mind is riven in half, one part screaming, the rest crystallized, frozen, gazing down on the roiling fury and confusion from above.

How could he not tell me?

This isn’t some minor oversight — and Aleks has had plenty of opportunities to at least mention it. The picture, the photograph on the stairs… He could’ve told her then, or in a thousand other moments. So many opportunities, and he availed himself of precisely none of them.

I’ve processed things , he’d said .

But has he, if he intentionally kept this from her?

And it’s the knowledge that this obfuscation was purposeful, that Aleks meant for her not to know, that makes the bright, beautiful thing inside her crack.

All this time I thought he was different, but he’s just like the rest.

She’s breathing, but there’s no air in her lungs. No, she’s drowning as Genya peers at her, her friend’s pretty features drawn with concern. “D’you need me to take you home, babe?”

Alina can hardly hear the words through the blood roaring in her ears, sanguine whitewater. She shakes her head numbly. “Can’t. My stuff is at Aleks’s.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Genya says fiercely. “we can—”

Alina shakes her head, the last of the floaty bliss from the primal hunt curdling to cold clarity. Her bruised heart was softer than she thought, softer than she could’ve believed after everything Nikolai put her through. But she can’t drag anyone else into this, Genya least of all. She has to clean up her mess alone.

Alone.

She’s empty. She’s ice, she’s stone. Cold. Hollow.

“No, I’ve gotta go…” Alina sighs wearily, scrubbing her wrist over an itchy spot on her cheek as she struggles to find words. She’s tired, so tired, but this mess won’t clean itself up. “…deal with this.” 

Instead of alleviating the prickle, her skin flares with pain, and her wrist comes away stained with a thin streak of blood. Genya’s gaze drops to Alina’s cheek, and she bares her teeth in a grimace. “Your face—” She turns away, raising her voice: “Fedyor!”

“It’s fine,” Alina mumbles, yanking the brace off her bad wrist. It’s probably just a scratch; finding out the truth about Luda here, like this, cuts far deeper. She reclaims her pentagram shoulder bag from her friend and pinches it between her knees, shoving the brace inside. The zipper growls shut, and she can feel her mental walls closing along with it. “I’m fine.”

She stands, brushing off Genya’s entreaties to stay, and heads inside.

It’s like she’s sleepwalking. Or a zombie, maybe. Everything’s still as it was — the opulent ballroom with its decadent display, guests draped across the couches and divans, the labyrinth of corridors and the dining room laden with its cornucopia of snacks.

Everything’s the same except for her.

Aleks is descending the stairs as she emerges into the entry hall, the dark cloaks draped over one arm. His smile evaporates, his dark brows knitting as he meets her at the foot of the stairs. “Alina, what’s—”

“We need to go,” she says, icy calm.

His expression darkens. “Are you—”

“Now.”

Aleks hesitates — and when he nods, there’s a flicker of something in his eyes that Alina loathes, something that looks far too much like guilt.


He knows. He must, because he’s silent all the way back to his house, only the car’s familiar creaking threading through the hush.

Alina stares dead ahead the entire way. She can see him in her peripheral vision, can sense the flash of his glasses each time he glances at her. But she doesn’t want to give him any chance to catch her eye. She wouldn’t be able to hold herself together, not now that they’re alone together.

At some point she hears him draw breath like he’s going to say something, and she stiffens. But then he only lets it out, exhaling through his nose. The very sound dejected.

All too soon the car slows, turning, and Alina’s stomach goes into free-fall as his house swings into view. Each tiny pothole in the driveway is magnified a thousandfold, her stomach churning with choppy waves.

Reality strobes in time with her stumbling heartbeats. Is this really happening?

Luda died.

Luda died from cancer.

Aleks parks in his usual spot, and Alina’s gut lurches at the sharp click of the key turning in the ignition, the way the engine cuts. The silver garage door glares back at her accusingly, still shining as the headlights linger.

“What’s wrong?” he asks softly.

Alina’s mouth is wrought of lead, a silvertongue’s cursed counterpart. “Luda.”

In her peripheral vision, he nods — and when he speaks his voice is flat with defeat. “Let’s go inside.”

The headlights dim, plunging the yard into darkness, and the car rocks as Aleks stands. Alina follows him from a generous distance. He leaves the basement door hanging open, but she stops at the threshold, finding the place where the walkway meets the line of the older man’s house.

One step, and everything changes.

Her heart slams against her ribs, and instinctively she knows this will be one of those moments that sticks in her mind, a snapshot she’ll revisit in the years to come. The last few seconds before everything between them exploded. Maybe even the last time she darkens this particular doorstep.

Alina draws a deep breath, letting it out slowly. Then she steps into the basement’s icy embrace.

Aleks is nearly at the foot of the stairs, but she can’t bring herself to follow. Everything she’s been bottling up since those fateful words found her ears. Ones he should’ve told her, but didn’t. “Why?”

He turns back at the sound of her voice, and the sorrow in his face almost undoes her right there. “Alina, come upstairs—”

No, ” she seethes quietly, slamming the door shut without taking another step forward. Is he trying to play pathetic, as though that’ll make her feel sorry for him? Unbelievable. “You have lost any ability to dictate what I do.”

Alina rips the cloak from her shoulders, tossing it aside on the futon. He just gazes at her with that same fucking sadness etched on his face, it’s unbearable—

“You want to do this here?” His voice is gruff, hollow.

“I don’t want to do this at all!” Alina swallows, the knot in her throat thickening painfully. He’s given her no choice, but it still hurts. “What the fuck, Aleks?” she whispers. “What were you thinking not telling me?”

Aleks unfastens his cloak, too, tossing it over the railing of the stairs. He’s wearing a dark t-shirt, but otherwise they’re still in the same clothes from the hunt. It’s a cruel irony that the true savagery was waiting not in the woods, but back here, behind human walls. Walls Aleks built.

He sighs, spreads his hands helplessly. “I was thinking of you.”

Me? ” Alina splutters, her frustration sparking to anger at the accusation.

“Alina, after what you’ve been through—”

“That is not fair, ” she snarls, seething so hard that she’s shaking. “You don’t get to use me against myself like that.”

His obsidian gaze hardens. “What did you want me to say? Hi, Alina, nice to meet you. So happy you survived cancer, my partner before you didn’t?”

“I mean, maybe not if you’d led with that,” Alina grinds out, her cheeks flooding with a feverish heat.

“Alya…” Aleks steps toward her, but she winces, falling back — and he looks like she’s slapped him. His jaw sets with resolve. “You wake up in the middle of the night screaming because of what happened to you, are you seriously arguing that I should’ve added to that burden? I was trying to protect you!”

“I am not a thing to be protected, Aleksander!”

“Aleksander now, is it?” The older man's voice is ragged with pain. He doesn’t look angry, he looks so fucking sad it almost breaks her heart, but it isn’t fair.

This isn’t my fault. I didn’t do this. I didn’t keep secrets.

Alina forces words through her vise-tight throat. Her iron armor is cracking, too, threatening to loose whole oceans of tears. “Did you seriously think this wasn’t ever going to come up?”

“It didn’t at brunch,” Aleks growls stubbornly.

It’s stupid, such a tiny shred to grasp onto, yet she can see him clinging to it so desperately. But in trying to grip tighter, in trying to justify himself, he’s pushing her away. Still hiding, even as his quartz gaze captures hers. “You lied to me.”

“I didn’t lie, I omitted,” Aleks snaps, his tone as dispassionate as her own. “You drew your own conclusions.”

Alina huffs a laugh of disbelief. “You say that like you think it’s defensible.”

“If you’re going to accuse me of things I’d at least like them to be true.”

A muscle ticks in the hollow of his cheek as she stares at him. “You weren’t protecting me, Aleks. Play whatever semantic games you want, but all you did was take away any chance I had to react in private.” She shakes her head, mortified by the memory of how she’d just strode off from Genya, the one person who always, always has her back. “Instead I found out in the least public place possible — and not even from you.”

Aleks points a bladed hand at his chest. “Maybe I wasn’t ready to open up about Luda.” He twitches his head in the faint approximation of a shake, his gaze drifting from her own. “About how complicated this is, feeling…”

The way he can’t even find words, now, when it matters most, makes fury surge through her. “Then you shouldn’t have been dating! You can’t unpack that kind of shit on someone else.” I called you Daddy, I opened up to you … and all the time you were just using me to replace a ghost. She chokes out a breath, hating the way it catches in a whimper. “I feel like such an idiot.”

His brow furrows in a startled confusion as his eyes recapture hers. “ What? Why?”

“I was honest with you — I told you everything. ” Alina knows better — should’ve known better, after Nik. But she’d opened herself up to this agony for a pretty pair of eyes. Am I more disappointed in him or me? “But you weren’t on that same page with me.”

“It isn’t a part of my life I’m keen to relive,” the silver-shot man bites out.

“Tell me about it,” Alina returns with equal savagery. “But I did it anyway. For you. So you’d understand me. So we could be…”

She doesn’t bother finishing. Anything they might’ve become has been shattered by the realization that their relationship is so crooked. In some ways, he’s still a total stranger.

“So what happens now?” Aleks asks, his voice a gravelly rasp.

Alina blinks at him in disbelief for a few moments before gathering her wits. “You’re not even going to apologize?”

“I’m sorry. I am, Alina — I assure you.” His deep, dark eyes plead with her, and the slithering thing in her gut coils tighter, twisting her into a human knot at his remorse. “If I’d known what this meant—”

“You knew, you were just afraid to tell me,” Alina hisses. She curls her lip in disdain. This is what I get. This is what I get for trusting someone. “You’re just another fucking coward.

“Can you blame me for being afraid of losing you over this?” Aleks growls. “I lived through a fucking nightmare, how fair is it for that part of my past to poison my future?” 

His voice breaks, and Alina realizes he’s still not furious the way she’s expecting. He’s on the verge of tears. And it hurts, even being so wounded, to see him this way. 

“I stayed with Luda through everything,” Aleks tells her, the words tight with barely-held anguish. “ Everything. And it is monumentally, cosmically unfair that that could be the reason you didn’t want me — because maybe once you knew I’d been there, too, it’s all you’d see when you looked at me: sickness, and— and pain— all of that shit that you endured alone—”

All the words she could’ve ever wanted to hear, tumbling forth from him in a breathless rush … but it’s too late.

“You took the choice away from me.” Alina can’t keep her voice from shaking. “ You, the person who is all about informed consent. You left me to find out like this.”

I love you. Even the mere memory of the thought haunts her. How close she’d come to crossing that brink, one from which there’s no return.

“You didn’t answer my question.” She scowls at Aleks, querying, and he quietly repeats: “What happens now?”

“I dunno, any more literal skeletons in your closet?” Alina snaps.

His eyes go bright with pain, and she bites back a groan at her own stupidity.

“I’m sorry, that was—”

“—over the line?” the older man asks dryly.

“Yeah. Fucking gallows humor,” Alina mutters.

He snorts, but the sound is devoid of mirth. “Tell me about it.”

“I wish you had told me,” she says softly. Reluctantly showing him her ragged, broken heart. “About everything, even the worst parts of you.” A sob rises in her chest, but she forces it back. “I showed you the worst of me.”

Aleks gives a derisive bark of laughter. “My past wouldn’t have made you run away screaming?” 

“No, it wouldn’t have,” Alina returns forcefully. “Honestly, I don’t have the greatest survival odds —I mean, they don’t completely suck, but…” She pauses, at an utter loss. “If you’ve been through all that already, why shouldn’t you be the one to run from me?

His eyes glitter as he steps closer, close enough that she can feel his heat wash over her skin. His face is so open and vulnerable as he gazes down at Alina that she’s afraid her breath could fracture him into nothingness. 

“Because I lo—”

Stop, ” she snarls, the harsh word startling him into silence. “Don’t you dare say that. If you say what I think you’re about to say, you can never take it back. It will always be haunted by this.

He peers at her for a long moment, his expression unreadable. Finally he says, “ Always implies some sort of future.”

Alina’s heart batters her ribs, refusing to be silent. “This would be so much easier if you were a dumb, unobservant, mean guy,” she grouses under her breath, teetering on the verge of breaking down.

Aleks’s lips twist in a tortured semblance of a smile. “You wouldn’t like me if I were.”

“No,” she admits quietly. “I suppose not.” 

Alina shakes her head, suddenly so exhausted that it’s a miracle her legs don’t give out beneath her. The shift is clinging to her body, sticky with sweat from another accursed DD breakthrough. Calcifer’s legacy still with her, written in her cells.

Aleks’s hands flex at his sides, but he doesn’t reach out to her. “What do you want, Alina?”

I want this to have never happened. I want to go upstairs and fuck and forget all of this. Forget that you could ever keep things from me, forget that the trust we forged has been broken.

“Space,” Alina says carefully, once she’s sure the brutal sobs are locked away tight in the drum of her chest. She needs to think, and she can’t do it here with him. “I want space.”


Again Aleks doesn’t speak for the duration of the ride. Again Alina keeps her silence, too, staring out the passenger window so there’s no chance of him snaring her in conversation.

Mal’s truck is in the driveway, the light beside the door welcoming her back.

The car shudders, its purring changing timbre as Aleks parks beside the curb. She unbuckles and slumps back against the seat, wishing for the thousandth time tonight that all of this is some godsawful fever dream.

But it isn’t.

And Aleks…

It’s barbed wire around her heart to look at him, his dark eyes smoldering into her, sorrowful and fierce. “For what it’s worth, Alina. I've seen what you truly are and I've never turned away,” he says softly. “I never will. Whatever you decide.”

This would all be bearable if he were a monster, but he’s just a man — brilliant, cursed with pain, burdened by time.

“I would really like to kiss you, especially if it might be the last time,” he says gruffly. “Is that all right?”

She can’t speak, her voice would betray her weakness … but she nods.

His hand cradles her cheek, and when he presses his lips to hers, his touch is desperation and fire and hunger. She hums into his skin, her whole treacherous body set alight, and as his tongue fills her mouth she clings to the lapel of his jacket just to stay in control.

“Alina—” he rasps into her cheek, his beard scraping her skin beautifully as he nuzzles her.

No no no

She plants her hand on his chest and shoves away from him before he can say another word. Another syllable from his plush, perfect lips and she’ll cave.

She throws the car door shut behind her with a velvet clunk, and though she wants to believe it’s the cold night air stinging her eyes, she knows better. Tears are brimming, threatening to spill onto her cheeks as she negotiates her bags through the front door and closes it. She doesn’t even turn around to lock it until his car rumbles away down the street, the engine waning until it’s lost to the night.

Alina drags her sleeve over her eyes, scrabbling for the tattered scraps of her composure — just in time, too. Mal pokes his head out of his room, visibly startled. “Hey. Didn’t expect you back tonight.”

“Yeah, me neither,” Alina mutters.

“Camping disaster?”

She grunts. He’s not entirely wrong.

“You could’ve texted me for a ride.”

“Didn’t need one.”

His eyes drop to her cheek just as Genya’s did. “Hell of a scratch — you get in a fight with a tree?”

“I beat it to a pulp,” Alina quips wryly.

Mal either misses the joke or doesn’t care. He’s too busy staring at her, his mouth thinning to a bloodless line, an angry slash deepening between his brows.

That awful wriggling in her gut returns with nauseating force, and she shifts, uncomfortable. “I should go clean it. Really stings.”

“If someone’s hurting you—” Mal begins hotly.

“No one is hurting me,” Alina snaps. She’s too tired for Mal’s bullshit tonight, and she turns away toward her bedroom, reaching for the doorknob.

“Dammit, Alina—”

Her left arm erupts in pain.

A grunt rips out of her chest as agony lances through her nerves. She instinctively claps her good hand to the epicenter of where it hurts — but Mal’s hand is already there.

Her backpack tumbles to the floor as he spins her back around to face him. “If Aleks—”

Let go! ” Alina howls.

He releases her but the pain lingers, her upper arm throbbing. Electric bolts skitter down through her fingers and into the scar above her breast, the muscles cramping, steel under her skin.

“Oh come on.” Distantly, she’s aware of Mal regarding her with scorn. “I didn’t touch you that hard.”

She glares poison at him. “It’s my bad arm, Mal!”

“Oh.” The arrogant expression fades to a grudging understanding. “Sorry. I just meant—”

“The only person hurting me right now is you! ” Alina snarls. The pain is beginning to subside; in a few minutes it’ll be gone altogether, but the fact that he’d grab her like that has her hackles on end. She doesn’t usually think about how big he is, but he has several inches and a heap of muscles over her.

Not to mention two fully working arms.

“Fine, whatever,” he growls, his scowl returning in full force. “I was just trying to help, you don’t have to be such a bitch about it.”

Mal stomps off into his room, and only after the door slams shut does Alina realize she’s been holding her breath. 

She scurries to her own bedroom and engages the lock, heart in her throat. When she reemerges a few minutes later, darting to the bathroom, he’s nowhere to be seen.

The washcloth scrapes over her skin, scouring off the smoky eye makeup, the trails of crimson glittering on her brow and her scar. It clings to her, refusing to let her fully wash it away, ghostly traces still haunting her visage as she cleans her cut.

The woman staring out of the mirror looks haggard, her eyes hollow. The scratch from some wayward branch lashing across her cheek, pink and angry.

It’s not fair. She was supposed to be happy right now, wrapped up in devotion. Safe with Aleks. Instead she’s further from him than ever.

I don’t get to be this lucky. This happy.  

The thought had struck her when they first got to the Electric Teakettle … and it breaks her that that wretched, miserable voice was right all along.

Only once she’s back in her bedroom does she start to sob, door locked, pillow shoved against her tearstained face to muffle the sound.

Chapter Text

“It’s at times like this I really wish I had a mum,” Alina grumbles. “No offense.”

“None taken,” Ana Kuya says with her trademark unruffled warmth. Today the therapist is wearing a grey sweater that brings out her stunning blue eyes and a peasant skirt with bright pink leggings peeking out at the ankle. “I’m not supposed to replace your mother, and I think we both know you’re well past trying to find a stand-in for her.”

Mercifully the older woman says nothing about the way Alina’s tugging at the strings of her hoodie, one yank shy of hiding herself from the world behind a fleecy sphincter. The past few days have been a nightmare — waking to the emptiness, the aching place in her heart where something is supposed to be. Roots torn out of the earth, the ground barren, a beautiful, impossible thing now lost.

Alina hasn’t cried since that first night, but she’s worried her lower lip raw, and fiddling with the hoodie ties is the only thing that’s keeping her bitten fingers out of her mouth. Too many things have gone wrong in the past few days; at least when the soft hood is drawn forward over her eyes she can’t see the world tumbling around her. She chews on the knot at the end of one woven tie. “Why does this kind of shit happen all at once?”

Ana Kuya tilts her head to the side, regarding her owlishly. “ Are things happening all at once, or does it feel that way?”

“What d’you mean?” Alina mumbles around a mouthful of hoodie string.

“Well, this isn’t the first time we’ve talked about Mal,” the older woman says evenly. “Does it feel like tonight was last night an isolated incident?”

She’s so matter-of-fact about it, Alina grimaces, letting the wet string drop. “No, I guess not. He’s kinda” —She stops herself, the word escalating on the tip of her tongue— “um, getting worse.”

“Let me ask you another question,” Ana Kuya says. “Picture your anxiety as a tangled web of strings or lightning, a big sphere like a storm. And every different challenge you’re confronting is a skein of a different color.”

Alina scowls, vainly trying to stir her desolate imagination. “Um, okay,” 

“What, if any, is the dominant color or issue that you see?”

She screws her eyes shut; it’s easier to think when she’s not stressing about where to look, when to blink. Still, she conjures nothing but darkness. Where the fuck do I start? “I don’t know.”

“Let’s break it down together.” Ana Kuya’s kindly voice finds her in the depths of oblivion. “Consider the factors as you’ve encountered them chronologically, if that helps. What factors are in play?”

“So, like…” Alina blows out a breath, but keeps her eyes shut. “Not having parents.” Maybe some part of her flinches to say the words so casually, but it’s long been buried under locks of iron and blood. “When things suck I always wish they were here.” During chemo it had been almost unbearable seeing everyone else accompanied by friends, families, parents. Sitting beside their sick loved ones, keeping them smiling even as poison ran through their veins. She’d almost reached out to the foster parents she’d shared with Mal, but they’d always been so aloof that she’d ultimately held back. “It’s like my default assumption is that things would be better if my mum and dad were here, but…”

She trails off, at a loss. At least alone she didn’t have to contend with their demons, too.

Enough.

“Then Nikolai.” Alina cracks her eyes open to find Ana Kuya nodding her understanding. “My life is better without him. And I’ve sorta put him away — not that I’m repressing any feelings,” she says quickly. “He’s not locked up, just sorta filed away, y’know?”

No flicker of emotion, no trace of feeling as these words leave her lips. It’s becoming easier to speak of him, the pangs of grief for her broken future. But once she saw that facet of him, the sneaky loser running around on his sick partner, any respect for him vanished as though it had never been.

“Then Mal.” Alina’s bottom lip stings as she sucks it in, running her tongue over the raw, broken flesh. “Things were so different between us when I moved in. Or maybe Genya’s right, and I just never noticed it.” She shakes her head listlessly. “Or maybe thinking about all that is pointless, anyway, because it is what it is now.”

Ana Kuya’s neat brows flick up. “Can you elaborate on that?”

“I don’t mean it like I’m resigned to it, it’s just…” Words are slippery eels, evading her every time she tries to grasp them. “I can’t keep thinking of Mal as who he used to be, because he changed. We’re not kids anymore, and I don’t know him as well as I thought.” Alina hesitates, remembering the way he’d looked at her with such scorn. “And it’s not okay, what he did,” she finishes reluctantly.

Ana Kuya nods again but she’s otherwise gone still, not even rocking in her computer chair the way she usually does.

“He didn’t even think about it being my bad arm,” Alina adds, more for herself than her therapist, unnerved by her silence. “I got lucky this time.”

“I want you to repeat that last sentence again,” Ana Kuya says carefully, her glacial blue gaze suddenly as bird-bright as Baghra’s.

“I … got lucky this time.” Alina’s throat clenches in a fierce knot as sickly goosebumps race across her skin. “ Fuck… ” she squeezes out — and then it hurts to even breathe.

If Genya, if any friend said those words, Alina knows what she’d tell them.

I got lucky this time.

How did this happen? Her friend, the boy who’d been a brother to her, is gone, replaced by this person. One who scares her. Maybe if she’s lucky he’ll return someday, but right now Mal’s volatile. Dangerous. She’d known it, her primal urges screaming for her to run as soon as she saw his hand clamped around her injured arm.

You don’t have to be such a bitch about it. The person who’d snapped those words at her isn’t anyone she truly knows. Not anymore.

“I have to move out, don’t I?” Alina asks, the words as leaden as her limbs.

Ana Kuya’s mouth tightens, as though she’s trying to figure out how to word something. “That’s something important to consider.”

“No, it’s okay, I already know.” Alina scrubs at her face with the sleeve of her hoodie. “I have to leave.” Maybe she can eke out another few days, weeks, but she’s racing a terrifying clock. A hysterical giggle bubbles out of her. “I don’t know how, or where I’m gonna go … thank fuck I don’t take up a lot of space in the world.”

“You may not take up a lot of space, but you still deserve to have space that’s your own,” Ana Kuya says, her voice gentle and firm all at once. She leans forward, like she’s trying to impress the words on Alina’s heart. “The world isn’t a fair place, it isn’t guaranteed — but it doesn’t mean you’re not worthy of it, or that it’s not worth seeking.”

“Thanks,” Alina mumbles, blinking back tears that are gathering in her scratchy eyes.

Ana Kuya is ready with a box of tissues. “How’s that anxiety storm doing?”

“So…” Alina wipes her eyes and blows her nose before answering. “Parents, Nik, Mal. Being disabled is one of the big ones, obvi … it makes everything so much harder. I can’t afford a place on my own … maybe Genya’s parents will rent me her bedroom? She’s moving out…” The sudden spike of warmth makes her slump with relief. “At least someone’s getting good news.”

“How is everything with Genya?” Ana Kuya asks.

“Good. She’s been touching base with me, checking in to see how I’m doing.” Only virtually, of course; her friend’s been busy with rideshare shifts, and Alina hasn’t been brave enough to do anything but hide out in her bedroom, pretending to be asleep in order to avoid Mal. “Most of the time I like being on my own, but right now there’s no safety net. So that’s the biggest thing,” Alina finishes awkwardly. “Knowing I have to figure out how to extricate myself on a thousand dollars a month.”

It’s impossible.

“Have you told Genya what’s going on with Mal?”

Alina shakes her head. “That’d make it feel … I dunno. Real, I guess.”

There’s no taking the words back once they’re spoken. Admitting how Mal’s been to her will set something in motion that Alina won’t be able to stop. I can’t be a burden to Gen, she’s got enough on her plate.

“Anything else tangled through there?” Ana Kuya asks.

Alina’s stomach lurches at the thought of him.

“Aleks,” she whispers. “I haven’t heard from him for three days. I mean, I asked him to give me space to think, so…” It’s not bad, having her boundaries respected, just different. And though part of her wishes he’d reach out, text her, anything, he wouldn’t be Aleks if he overtly violated her request for space. That in itself is reassuring. “I think part of me being angry at him was because of Nikolai. I was ready to jump into that place mentally, thinking if he can keep that secret, what else is he hiding?

Ana Kuya’s eyes narrow in good-natured suspicion. “You’re making but -face.”

Buttface, ” Alina whiffs, unable to resist — but her laugh is bloodless. “But… I don’t know that he is hiding anything else. This hit me so hard because Aleks has otherwise been open and honest with me … if he was just trying to get laid there are tons of easier ways.”

Her heart thumps softly. What we had was real.

But her heart’s lead her astray before.

“Remind me, has the subject of his ex come up before?” Ana Kuya asks, sitting up to flick through notes on her laptop.

“A couple times.” Another mirthless laugh rattles out of her. “He told me their situation was different from me and Nik. No lies detected there, I guess.”

Well, deception by omission isn’t ideal,” Ana Kuya says, drawing out the first word dubiously.

“Yeah.”Alina frowns, remembering: “He said he was afraid I wouldn’t want to be with him if I knew what had happened to her.”

Ana Kuya sits back, crossing her legs as she studies Alina. “How do you think you would have reacted if he’d been up-front with that information?”

“Well, I would’ve thought…” The temptation to paint herself in the best light possible dangles before Alina, but she shoves it aside, knowing what her brain weasels would’ve insisted. “I, um, probably would’ve thought he was trying to replace her.”

“Is that still a question for you now?”

Alina thinks for a few long moments before nodding.

“Do you feel physically safe around Aleks?”

“Oh gods yeah,” Alina says quickly. If nothing else she knows Aleks’s habits, his manner. The what of who he is now, if not the why. The way he always reaches for sorrow over anger, never lashing out at her.

“Given what’s going on with Mal—” Ana Kuya begins.

“—yeah, safe to ask.” Alina twitches her head up, letting the hood slip off. “He would never. Aleks, I mean.” She huffs out another quiet laugh. “Crazy that I feel safer around someone I met last month than someone I’ve known my entire life.”

“People change,” Ana Kuya says, genuine sadness filtering into her voice. “And predators can come from anywhere.”

Mal isn’t a predator. The thought flashes through Alina’s mind, bright with instinct … but it isn’t true. The way he’s regarded her with such condescension ever since he found out she was dating. The easy way he’d slagged her off, the word bitch so quick to his tongue.

“As far as Aleks is concerned, the ball does seem to be in your court,” Ana Kuya says, lacing her fingers together and settling them on her crossed knee. “On one hand, breaches of trust are serious; on the other, people do make genuine mistakes. And you’re entitled to decide whether or not you’d like to have that conversation with him.”

“I’d rather talk to him than Mal,” Alina mutters sourly.

Ana Kuya offers a lopsided smile. “Well, that’s something.” The older woman hesitates, teetering on some internal verge before continuing, her words now curiously halting. “I know you’re fully capable of looking up this kind of thing online, but I’d like to send you home with some information. Just in case. I can email it to you if you’d prefer to be discreet.”

“I do love me some secret literature,” Alina jokes wanly, but her mouth is full of cotton, her veins brimming with icy terror to realize that she really, truly is at that point. That her hackles were right about Mal, and now everything has to change.


It takes Alina two more days to work up the nerve to message Aleks. The letters BF next to his name are a dagger twisting in her heart.

Alina GF : hey

The response comes almost immediately, an anvil sparking in her chest as her heart hammers down.

Aleks BF : Hey.

Alina GF : thank you for giving me space

Aleks BF : Of course

Alina curses as she misspells a word, her prewritten series of texts in her spiral notebook no match for her shaking fingers. Should’ve written them on here instead, I could’ve just copypasta’d…

Alina GF : I’d like to talk about some stuff in person, if you’ve got time

Aleks BF : For you, I always have time.

Aleks BF : When were you thinking? I’m free anytime after 6 today and tomorrow.

Today. Her guts knit at the idea. But waiting an entire extra day won’t make her any braver, just more anxious.

Alina GF : today wouldn’t be too soon?

Aleks BF : I’d prefer it, if it’s all the same to you.

Of course. He’s pragmatic; better to get this — whatever it is — over with as soon as possible.

Alina GF : ok if I come by around 7?

Aleks BF : Do you need a ride?

It’s worth the cost of a rideshare to avoid a silent drive with him, unable to talk about anything important until he’s out from behind a steering wheel. Hopefully Genya will be pulling a shift tonight, so at least her money will go to a worthy cause.

Alina GF : no, thanks though

Alina GF : see you then


Your driver is: GENYA S. Enjoy your trip!

Alina’s phone buzzes with a text from Genya a few seconds later — Got it, babe, see you soon! — and she slumps with relief. The odds that someone else in the Os Kervo area might get assigned to her request had kept her holding her breath. Now that Genya’s on her way, she feels safe enough to emerge from her bedroom and into the kitchen, albeit with shoes already fastened, jacket and pentagram bag slung over her shoulders.

Mal’s standing at the stove, irritably poking at something in a pan that’s throwing up smoking — a well-done steak, by the smell. He glowers at Alina through the brume. “You’re going out?”

“Yeah.”

“You really think that’s a good idea?”

Alina blinks at him, still stunned by his arrogance as hot anger burns in her chest. “You really don’t realize you’re being a controlling dickhead?”

“I think you’re in some kind of trouble,” he snaps, half-turning from the stove, bloodless knuckles clenching a set of tongs, “and I’m here to help if you’d just let me!”

The way his voice is rising makes her chest tighten, her breaths shallowing with dread. “I don’t need saving, Mal!”

“Tell that to your cheek, or the back of your legs.”

Alina sucks in a breath through her nose. I will not sink to his level. “You have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.”

“I know the signs of abuse when I see them,” he declares loftily.

She resists the impulse to roll her eyes, unwilling to look away for even a fraction of a second, but stubborn words burst out of her instead: “That’s rich coming from you .”

Mal stares at her, his countenance warped and ugly with contempt. “How can you go back to him if that’s how he treats you?”

Alina’s resolve shatters. “How do you get that my relationships are none of your business? ” she hisses. “Where was this defensiveness when Nik was running around on me?”

“Alina—” he tries to interrupt.

“No, fuck you, Malyen!” she growls, pulse chanting nervously in her ears — and to her relief, he falls back a step. “I don’t have time or energy for your histrionics.”

He stares at her open-mouthed, a sullen, oversized child. “Ever since you started seeing this guy you’ve become a totally different person.”

“What, a happy one?” Alina snorts.

“If this is happiness to you, you’re seriously messed up. Someone needs to get it through your head—”

“My ride’s here, I have to go,” she interrupts, rescue coming in the form of her buzzing phone. Her heart is slamming, the animal impulses she’d felt during the hunt flickering to life — but not in consensual play this time.

Run run run

“I know where you’re going!” he calls after her as she wrenches the front door open. “ Alina—!

She half-trots, half-skids down the icy driveway and throws herself into the passenger’s seat of Genya’s sleek Charger, slamming the lock with the palm of her hand as soon as the door’s shut.

“You okay, babe?” Genya demands.

The door to the apartment is still shut, he’s not coming after her … but she knows what’s lurking in there, and it makes bile crawl up the back of her throat. “Yeah. Just go.”


Alina is emotionally exhausted, brittle by the time Genya’s car bumps down the familiar driveway. Aleks’s sedan is parked in its usual place, and woodsmoke puffs through the night, clouds against a sparkling, starry sky.

Has it really been less than a week? It feels like a miserable eternity since she’s seen this place.

Genya throws her car into park, regarding Alina carefully. “You’re sure you don’t want me to hang around for a few minutes, just in case?”

Alina shakes her head. “I don’t imagine this is gonna be quick.”

The basement door opens, and the sight of his silhouette makes Alina grateful her stomach is empty. Fuck. Time to be an adult and use my words.

“Call if you need anything, alright?” Genya demands. “Seriously, if you need to crash with me tonight—”

“How about a bit longer?”

Genya’s sculpted brows wing up. “Huh?”

“Never mind,” Alina mutters as she unbuckles. “Uh, talk later, okay?”

“Yeah,” Genya says, but her expression’s gone strangely distant, a wrinkle appearing between her brows. She doesn’t even seem to notice the car door thump shut between them.

Alina vainly wishes the earth would open up and swallow her as she trudges the short distance to the open door where Aleks stands waiting. I shouldn’t have said anything, she’s got enough to deal with… But it’s too late to take the words back.

One problem at a time. She’ll have to clear things up with Genya later.

He lets her in silently, turning away from the basement door before she’s even reached the threshold. She waves Genya away, and the Charger rolls backward, its smooth purr dropping to almost nothing as she closes Aleks’s door.

Alina follows him upstairs, but he doesn’t turn back until they’re in the kitchen’s amber lights — and then she drags in a breath in shock. Aleks looks haggard, the crescents under his eyes bruise-dark, the handsome lines carved into his face rather than etched. She coughs to hide her gasp, setting her jacket and bag on a chair as she kicks off her shoes. “You look like shit.”

“Your compliments are as on-point as ever.” The older man’s stunningly dark eyes are duller than usual but still simmering, his gaze locked on hers. His white button-front shirt is rolled up to the elbows; both it and his khakis look careworn as he folds his arms over his chest. “Wasn’t sure if I was going to hear from you again.”

“What, ever?

His dark brows twitch up, and he pushes his glasses higher up the bridge of his nose. “The last time I saw you, Alya, you were distraught and you asked for space. Not exactly cause for hope.”

Shit. “Guess that’s fair,” she mutters.

Aleks gestures to the living room, and she perches on the loveseat, legs drawn up before her. He sinks into his computer chair, spinning it to face her but leaving a heartbreaking chasm of space between their bodies.

He leans forward, elbows on his knees as he fiddles with his hands. “Do you want to talk first, or do you want me to go?”

Alina blinks, startled. Her pounding heart quickens, and even though she’s sitting down her legs tremble. I didn’t even realize he’d have things he’d want to say. Not first, anyway. “Um, you can start if you want.”

“Look … you were right about me,” he admits, so bluntly that she can only stare. “What you said about us not being on the same page … you were right. I was afraid, I made shitty excuses to myself to justify not telling you, and I was selfish not opening up to you the way you shared yourself with me.” He leans back, raking his fingers through his silver-and-black hair as his brows flick up. “Which is ironic, because your brutal, hilarious honesty was one of the first things that made me like you. Because you could talk about the worst things and laugh at them, even if you were still hurting.”

“Why didn’t you just say something?” Alina mumbles.

“At first, because I was trying to find the perfect time,” Aleks says as a crimson flush creeps up his neck. “But there is no perfect time to talk about something like that. You don’t have the privilege of not getting to think about cancer every single day for the rest of your life.”

At least he gets that much. “But in trying to not hurt me, you hurt me anyway.”

“I know. And I am so sorry, Alina.” He leans on his elbows again, slumping with the weight of guilt. “You shouldn’t have had to find out that way. You should’ve heard everything from me, up front, in a place where you wouldn’t be forced to keep your feelings bottled up.”

It’s almost everything she could want to hear from him.

Almost.

“Look, everything that happened to Nik has given me a really low tolerance when it comes to lying, by omission or otherwise,” Alina says slowly. “I have to know that this was the exception to an otherwise really strict rule.”

“It was, I assure you.” Uncertainty creeps over his face. “But how could you believe me saying that now, when it’s too late?”

“Because I’ve known liars and losers, and I don’t think you’re either of those things. I actually think you’re really special, Aleks.” She smiles sadly, even as tears brim in her eyes. “But are you, like … trying to fill a Luda-sized hole in your life?”

His eyes flare with shock, as though the possibility never occurred to him until she voiced it just now. “Absolutely not. You’re nothing alike. —which isn’t to say she wouldn’t have liked you,” he adds, “I’m sure you would’ve gotten on like a house on fire. But you’re entirely different people. This is a horrid coincidence and fucking gutlessness on my part, but that’s all it is.”

Alina’s watery gaze falls to her injured hand, thumb curled under her bent fingers the way it always does. “It isn’t worse for me. You having been down the cancer road, I mean.”

“Isn’t it?” Aleks mumbles miserably.

“I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but it’s not something you can explain to anyone who hasn’t been there. There aren’t words. You get it.” He’s waiting for Alina as she looks up again — and his stricken expression makes her heart ache for her pain, his pain, their pain, both together and apart. “And I hate that you understand, but I wouldn’t have left you because of that. But I—” She slumps, her throat burning with the effort of gulping back so many sobs. “What about you? I’m out of the woods for now, but there’s a good chance it could come back. How unfair is that for you, potentially getting saddled with being a caregiver twice?”

“Life is anything but fair,” Aleks says with a gruff shrug. “You do a lot to even the scales, though.”

“How?”

His dark eyes glitter with tears. “By existing.”

Fuck. It’s so unfair, so unfair that they’ve both been through that hellscape only to emerge broken. Wounded.

“What kind of cancer did Luda have?” Alina asks softly.

“Pancreatic.”

“Jesus,” she mutters instinctively.

Aleks nods, a pained dip of his head that tells her exactly how awful it was. “It ripped right through her. Felt like one day she was her happy, healthy self. Then she was so unbelievably ill. And then she was gone.” He nudges his glasses up to wipe his eyes, and though his voice is hoarse, it’s still strong. “That was three years ago now. And I still feel like just talking about it … it could happen to any moment to anyone I care about.”

Alina crosses her legs, fiddling with the cuff of her hoodie. “Were you guys, like, endgame?”

“If you mean on track to getting married, no,” he says. “We were in an open relationship that had mostly gone platonic — amicably, mind you. Just going in different directions. We were part of a polycule, and the others were exclusively her partners.” The faint warmth that’s been gathering on his face at the memory fades, a cloud shadowing the sun. “But we were family, and losing her was devastating. For all of us.”

Alina nods.

“That’s what got me to come here, build this house,” Aleks goes on, his deep voice smoothing out. “I’d been waiting, but life is too short. And I needed something to throw myself into, something that wasn’t grieving. A place that would be my real home.”

“I wish you had told me all of this from the beginning,” Alina says quietly.

He’s watching her in that terribly beautiful way of his, the one that’s raw with hurt … and a tiny flicker of hope. “Is what I did… Is it utterly unforgivable?”

He’s asking if we’re breaking up.

That’s the moment her throat clenches tight, too tight for her to force out anything more than a squeak as she shakes her head and launches herself into his arms.

“Alina…” His voice breaks, and he’s shaking, but his arms are wrapped around her fiercely enough to fuse the shards of her broken heart back together.

“Don’t ever do that to me again, okay?” she whispers, arms wrapped around his neck as tears spill down her face. “No more secrets or weird black holes in between us.”

“I am truly sorry,” he tells her fiercely, the words humming through her skin. “Never again.”

“This week has sucked without you.”

He draws back just far enough to kiss her forehead. “I’m here now, sweetheart.”

“I missed you, Daddy,” she sobs, the words ripping out of her in a strained voice that’s so close to hysterics that it isn’t entirely her own.

“Oh love, I missed you, too.”

He scoops her up, and a moment later they’re on the loveseat. His arms around her, cradling her to his chest, pressing kiss after to kiss to her sweat-sticky brow as she cries oceans of relief.

Chapter Text

When Alina has sobbed herself out, their mouths find each other, lips meeting like a whisper but soon crashing together. She pulls Aleks closer every time he tries to retreat; each time he relents and holds her closer. Only sparing a hand to stroke her hair, his hand tracing a soothing path down her spine.

The loveseat is too small for cuddling like this, but they make it work, Aleks’s body comfortably firm beneath her, his legs skewed off the side, his glasses vanished somewhere out of sight. Alina sprawls on his chest, not worrying about her body for once — until he starts to shift, fidgeting every few seconds.

“What’s wrong?” she murmurs into him. “Am I squishing you?”

Alina starts to pull back but Aleks’s arms are inescapable iron, and he chases her lips. “Mm-mm.” The silvershot man kisses her softly, his tongue caressing hers, the sweet taste of him filling her mouth. “It’s nothing.”

But then he shifts beneath her again, almost squirming. “Aleks—”

“It’s—” He spares a hand from her just enough to adjust his trousers, his face flushing. “I’m—”

He twists his hips away from her — and that’s when she sees the way his zipper is straining.

“Oh,” Alina breathes, a hot rush pouring through her sex in primal response. She presses her lips to his again, hunger coiling through her exhausted body and stirring her to a fiery wakefulness. She catches his wrist, stopping him as he tries to tuck his erection away from her body. “Don’t go.”

Aleks’s slamming heartbeat shakes both of their bodies as he hesitates, studying her. “Are you sure?”

“I haven’t touched you in almost a week.” For the first time this week, a smile steals over her lips. “ Yes, I’m sure.”

A muscle ticks in the hollow of his jaw. “Right. Upstairs, then.”

What? ” Alina squeaks in protest.

His grin is breathtakingly wicked as he pats the curve of her arse, urging her up. “Come on, princess. My bed missed you, too.”

Aleks’s seemingly chivalrous air only lasts until the top of the stairs, and then he pounces on her, pinning her against the wall. His mouth slants over hers, reclaiming her very breath, his hands swallowing her hips and sliding down to cup the swells of her arse.

He wants me. It’s as though she’s coming back to herself in his arms, and he’s rousing, too. Each of them recalled to life by the other.

She knots her fingers in his hair, pushing her hips forward to meet him, savoring the feeling of his hard length nudging into her belly. Her heart racing as he snarls and drags her into his bedroom, stumbling under the chandelier to the sprawling canopy bed.

Waves of fabric wash over her face — sweater, shirt, bra, and then she’s naked down to her leggings. She tugs at the buttons of the shirt, only managing to work a few of them open before his bladed hands slide down her hips, pushing her leggings and underwear down to her knees.

Alina yelps as Aleks spins her around and bends her over the foot of the sprawling bed. Her legs are trapped by the waistband of her leggings, and she fists the soft quilt as his hands skim up the back of her thighs, thumbs scrawling circles into her skin. “ Ahhhh…

“Such a good girl for me,” Aleks murmurs. His fingers dig into her flesh, splitting her open, and his hot breath gusts over her pussy as he nuzzles into her.

She clamps her lips into a bloodless line, humming from the spike of pleasure at his first lick. Fuck, I missed this. His familiar touch as he teases her, tracing through her folds and giving her the flat of his tongue when he finally reaches her clit.

He sucks the delicate knot of nerves once, gently, but it’s enough to make Alina’s spine bow with rapture. His fingers tighten on her arse and he drags his tongue along the length of her dripping slit, rumbling into her pussy as she whimpers. A predator taking his pleasure.

Alek’s dark laugh makes her shiver with longing. “God, I missed the taste of your sweet little kitty,” he rasps, punishing her with another slow, wet ribbon along the seam of her pussy.

“Daddy, please,” Alina begs. “I need to feel you inside me…”

By way of answer, he yanks her leggings down, dragging them off her completely. She scampers up onto his bed, stomach flipping with delight as he prowls after her. Oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck—

Aleks kneels over her hips, the first glint of that playful, Dominant swagger lighting his face. Staring down at her with that breathless grin, drinking in her naked body as he slowly unbuttons his shirt and tosses it aside. “Do you want more of my mouth, Alya?”

She bites her lower lip, vainly hiding a flirty grin as she shakes her head.

“My fingers, then?” he croons silkily.

Alina shakes her head again, her body singing with his closeness.

Her skin pebbles as Aleks thumbs his pants open. He shoves his trousers and boxers briefs down to his mid-thigh in one smooth movement, sighing with relief as he frees his proud length. He pumps himself a few times, lazily. “Or should I just start with this.”

Not asking. He already knows.

“That, please,” she breathes, almost drooling at the sight of him.

Her cunt cramps with need as he cages her down against the quilt with his body, his body smoldering like his dark stare — but he dips his head, kissing her breasts and swirling hungry circles around her areolas with his tongue, sucking her nipples until they harden.

“Fuck—” Alina hisses, dragging her nails against the broad expanse of his back.

The older man grunts, and she gasps as his teeth graze her nipple. Yes…

With a final flick of his tongue against one of her stiff peaks he returns to her, bracing himself on his forearm, and he reaches down between their bodies, guiding himself to her soaked entrance.

“You want this?” Aleks rubs his cockhead against her slit, teasing her with his dull, raw heat. “You want to feel me inside you again, sweetheart?”

Alina nods, her breaths shallow with desire. A tingling cascade runs down the nape of her neck, as though she’s on the verge of vibrating out of her skin as he starts to push, breaching her pussy like he already owns her.

His lips stumble against hers as he murmurs, “Tell me, love.”

“Fuck me, Aleks,” she whispers. She cranes her neck, fingers tightening in his hair, claiming his lips as he penetrates her. Her body burns at his blunt, thick invasion, the way taking her so slowly that it’s equal parts pain and pleasure. “Fuck me, please, I need you so much…”

A growl rumbles through his chest, and his other arm comes up to frame her shoulders. Bracing as he languidly thrusts, not stopping his trespass until he possesses her completely.

A husky moan twists out of Alina, and she wraps herself around him, legs tangling in his half-shed khakis. She kisses a wet line to the corner of his jaw, almost lost to primeval lust as her body adjusts to the overwhelming intrusion of his body filling hers, the stretch of them utterly locked together.

I love you, Aleksander Morozova.

All traces of politeness, of fumbling uncertainty are gone, lost to a symphony of kissing, biting, groaning as Aleks starts to move inside her. Plying Alina with long, hard strokes that leave her gasping from the inferno of ecstasy that he’s sparking in her core.

“I want you, Aleks,” she purrs, heart pounding with commingled joy and desire. She cants her hips, giving him greater access. “All of you.”

The older man pistons into her harder, murmuring with bliss as he nuzzles into the curve of her neck. “You belong here.” His voice is hoarse with need, and he snaps his hips at the end of each thrust, making her sob. “You belong with me, solnishka.

The word slides out of her in a throaty sigh. “ Yes …”

His cock throbs, his searing heat commanding her attention as he pounds into her. Alina rakes her nails along his back until he catches her wrist, twisting her good arm up above her head and pinning it against the pillows.

There are no more words, only gasping breaths, their bodies warring, dancing, rocking together. Alina tenses hard as she arches her back, forcing her hips down to meet Aleks’s harsh advances, eager for more. The prominences of his hips slam into the underside of her thighs hard enough to leave bruises, but she craves it. His desperation, the way he grunts as she plunges deep, are enough to make her cunt clamp tight around his adamant shaft — and he groans in response. 

His grip on her wrist loosens, and Alina laces her fingers together with his, humming as he squeezes hard. She can feel him quickening, his huge body trembling violently on top of her, harder with each savage thrust.

Mine, Alina’s body croons happily as he ravishes her. Mine, mine, mine…

Her thighs blaze with heat as she tightens her legs around Aleks’s, molding her body to him as his trembling heightens. His tempo becomes frenzied, fractured, his breaths rasping against her neck.

He’s close. Dreamily she’s aware of it, aware that her muscles are taut bowstrings, too. The orgasm has already begun to crack out of her very center, liquid joy stealing through her veins as she surges beneath him. She’s the ocean and he’s the howling wind, their bodies caught in a storm of their own making — and Alina shatters with a sob, a maelstrom of rapture dragging her under.

Aleks finds his pleasure as she’s coming undone, driving into her pussy in brutal strokes that redouble her own mindless ecstasy. His strangled shout heralds the heat spurting in her womb, his cum flooding her in a molten deluge. 

Mine. My Aleks, my love…

Alina groans, her cunt fluttering violently around his rigid length, wringing a final few starbursts of brilliance from him as they cling to each other, panting and spent.

“Alinochka…” Her half-lidded eyes widen as he cups her cheek, capturing her gaze with his own. His quartz eyes are bright with purpose. “I love you.”

Her heart stumbles. He’s still inside her, twitching with aftershocks of his climax, shivering each time her pussy squeezes him. What?

“I love you,” he repeats firmly. “And I’m not saying that because we just had sex, but because I can’t go another second without telling you that.” He strokes her cheek, gazing down at her like she’s the sun. “I love you, Alina Starkov.”

Words that she’d never thought she’d hear again, that she never thought she could trust … but it’s Aleks. Aleks, the person who rekindled her own heart, making it burn brighter than starlight.

She slips her fingers out of his, letting her fingertips skate over his stubbled jaw. “I love you, too.”

And with that, everything’s as it should be in the world.

Alina cards her fingers through his soft hair, drawing him down to her as the slow smile spreads over his face — and even though she’s kissed him a hundred times, she knows this is one she’ll remember forever.


Alina returns from the bathroom moderately cleaner and still naked, to find him standing before his rope cubbies. He’s only wearing his boxers and glasses, but his expression is drawn with focus the way he usually looks when he’s grading essays.

“That’s a good look for you,” she remarks casually — and the crease between his brows smooths out, his mouth tilting up as she joins him.

“Likewise.” Aleks slips his arm around her waist, guiding her between him and the cubbies and gently nudging her up against the wooden grid. He leans down to her, brushing his lips against hers, ravenous and tender and desperate all at once.

The trajectory of her life has shifted, bending from his gravity … and wonder steals through Alina, knowing that he’s completely, unreservedly hers.

“What are you doing over here?” she asks when they finally break apart.

Aleks tilts his head to one side, regarding her in that hungry way of his. “Thinking.”

“About…?”

He catches her chin, lingering before dragging his thumb down the column of her neck, skimming through the hollow of her throat and along the line of her sternum. “About how much I’d like to put you in a hishi karada.

“Uh, bless you?” Alina jokes weakly as the syllables staunchly refuse to make sense. “No, but seriously, what—”

“It’s Japanese,” Aleks supplies smoothly, “like most of the best terminology for rope work. A rope dress made of diamond structures. Time-consuming, but beautiful.”

Alina lifts one shoulder, abruptly grateful that Genya won’t be circling back for her. “I’m not in a hurry … are you?”

That beautiful, blinding, slightly goofy grin of his makes her heart skip with happiness. He spins her around, the warmth of his chest flooding her back as he embraces her. His breath warms the shell of her ear. “Then you’d better choose a color, my love.”

On any other night she might feel drawn to the black or crimson ropes, stark and severe. But tonight is different. Special.

Alina taps the cubicle that holds skeins of rainbow rope. “This.”

“Excellent choice.” He gently spanks the globe of her arse, the strike more sound than substance. “Back to my bed, kitten.”

She perches on the longer side of the bed, swinging her legs in anticipation as Aleks selects his arsenal — but she raises a brow at the sight of the raw brown ropes that he tosses onto the bed along with the rainbow ones.

“Trust me,” he tells her, reading her dubious expression.

“I do,” Alina says softly.

It’s enough to make Aleks stop what he’s doing entirely, one graceful hand rising to caress her neck as he presses a kiss to her lips.

Heat rushes to her cheeks as the older man shakes out a skein of the brown rope. “So you love me, huh?” she asks, batting her eyes at him.

“I do.” He whiffs a soft laugh. “Ridiculously much.”

Ridiculously? ” Alina teases.

“Levels of adoration that I didn’t think I was capable of.” Aleks shakes his head as though in disbelief. As though by magic, the bight of the brown rope is there in his hand; he gives it one last shake and then spreads Alina’s knees, positioning himself between her splayed thighs and leaning close. He plants his fisted hands outside her thighs, leveling his smoky stare at her from mere inches away. “I’ve never found anyone like you, Alina.”

Her stomach flips. “Sweaty, sleepy, and not super useful to the gross national product?”

“Indomitable.” Aleks kisses her forehead. “Funny.” He dips lower, printing another kiss in the hollow of her jaw. “Sweet.” A third kiss, this one mirroring the last, the simple touch sending an electric jolt through her nerves. “Someone who I can be myself — my whole self — with, not just one facet. Cruel and kind and silly and sexy…” Aleks’s sterling highlights glint as he draws back just far enough to peer at her, teeth flashing in a mischievous grin. “You want to hear it again, don’t you?”

Alina’s heart thumps wildly. Nikolai and every boyfriend before him had been so stingy with any semblance of emotion that it’s like being spoiled.

She nods eagerly — and this time he doesn’t ask her to tell him anything, he just says it: “I love you.”

“That’s going to take some getting used to,” Alina says as he starts wrapping the doubled-over brown lines around her torso. The rope has a wild, grassy scent to it, and that strange sense of relief seeps through her as Aleks winds them tight around her chest.

He spares her a curious glance, and though his tone is light she knows the question is genuine. “Being in love with me?”

“No … I think I knew that a while ago,” she admits. It was so obvious, no wonder it hurt so badly thinking he didn’t feel the same. “You loving me, though…”

HIs brows knit in bemusement as he shakes out a bundle of the rainbow rope. “Why’s that so unbelievable? I don’t belong on any pedestals.”

“You don’t make me feel like a burden, or like I’m weak,” Alina says, the words halting with emotion. “You make me feel like … me.

Sitting here on the edge of his bed, it’s as though cancer, Nikolai, all of it is part of a closed chapter. Distant enough to feel safe opening up again.

Aleks’s hands slide over her skin, tying her into a simple harness that makes her feel increasingly serene with every knot. “You aren’t a burden.” His deep, rich voice soothes her as he locks the rainbow rope to the lowest level of the brown ladder that spirals around her body. “In fact, you’ve lightened my burdens considerably.”

“How?” Alina asks.

His smile is bittersweet. “By existing.”

“You are so cheesy,” she groans, half-laughing.

Alek’s smile broadens, his cheeks flushing self-consciously. “Cheesy it may be, sweetheart, but it’s also the truth.”

Alina’s grinning, too, floaty with delight, This is her new life. She’ll find a way to stay here in Os Kervo, no matter what. She and Aleks are binary stars, caught in each other’s orbits.

But for how long?

Her gut churns with sudden disquiet. She can’t demand complete honesty from him without volunteering the same. “In the interests of full transparency, I should tell you my odds are—”

“Never quote me your odds,” Aleks quips softly. He presses his forehead to Alina’s, the tip of his nose brushing against hers. “You can tell me if you want, but the truth is, I don’t care. Whatever time we have together, I want it.”

Scalding tears prick the corners of her eyes, and she sniffs them back, watching silently as Aleks weaves the rainbow ropes through the simple brown ones. The vibrant colors twisting, crossing, rising in a line up the center of her naked body.

Aleks sighs with satisfaction as he finishes, tying off the final knot somewhere between her shoulder blades. He moves in front of her again, tugging the lines here and there, smoothing the parallel ropes to lie flat against her skin. “How are you feeling? Any pinching, discomfort?”

“No discomfort.” 

Truth be told, it’s more reassuring than clothing — as though for once in her life, she doesn’t have to hold herself together. Aleks’s knots are holding her together instead.

He’s still scowling with that diamond-sharp focus of his as he helps her to her feet. “It’s not too much?”

“I feel relaxed, actually.” Alina smirks cheekily. “Though that might be in part because I’m very well-fucked.”

He laughs, that full-throated sound of pure happiness that she’d been afraid she would never hear again. “Would you like to see?”

“Of course!”

She hasn’t noticed the black tapestry hanging on one of the crimson walls until Aleks moves to it, and he reaches out to it, drawing the cloth away to reveal a full-length mirror.

“I put this in before…” He clears his throat, and she can sense him wincing. Before the masquerade. “Well, just before.”

He takes her hand and draws her in front of him, his touch never once leaving her body — and Alina gasps as she sees the intricate harness from this new angle.

Hearts. They’re unmistakable, one facing up, the other down. Their lines curving and fluid from the way he’s woven them through the brown spiral. The gradient perfect, flowing evenly from crimson at her lower belly to violet at her shoulders.

“It’s called a Heartbreak Karada, ” Aleks explains quietly, his smile crooked. “Though it doesn’t seem sad to me.”

Alina runs her fingers over the twinned ropes, savoring the bite of the fibers against her skin. “Is it going to stop me from running away?”

“Not especially,” he chuckles. “You could probably sneak this under a sweater quite easily.” He cocks his head to the side, squinting at her reflection. She shivers as he runs his palm along the bare curve of her hip. “Though I could add a nice little ladder for your legs if you’re feeling energetic.”

She arches an eyebrow, secret delight cresting in her chest at the thought of more of this. More rope, more of his sterling attention, more of his singleminded attention. Looking at her the way no one else ever has. Reverently, like she’s the only thing in existence.

Mayyybe, ” Alina says, drawing the word out playfully.

Aleks traces the curve of her neck with his forefinger, deliciously solemn as goosebumps race across her skin. “Sounds to me like you’re asking for it, Miss Starkov.”

She yelps in delight as he drags her back to the bed, settling her against the pillows. He grabs another hank of rainbow rope and kneels at her feet, locking her ankles together with a simple lark’s head. He works quickly, pulling the trailing end through each new loop, binding her legs as sinuously as a snake.

He finishes just below her knees, a trace of haughtiness tugging at his features as he tucks the loose ends away behind her calves. Fuck, he’s so hot. “There.” He sits back on his heels, admiring her. “That should keep you here with me for a bit.”

“I can hardly be a prisoner with my arms free,” Alina taunts.

Aleks slips his fingers under the ropes at her ankle, tugging sharply — and she squeals in delight as she slides down the quilt. Holy shit!

He’s on her in the next moment, his weight pressing her into the mattress, her wrists caged in his graceful fingers. 

“You still think you can tame me?” Alina laughs scornfully as he scents her neck, inwardly thrilled by this game. “Doubtful.”

“Try to get away — I dare you, little brat,” he murmurs, eyes flashing with challenge. It only takes one of his hands to pin both of her wrists over her head, and the other molds to the curve of her breast, thumbing the line that passes over her nipple. “I’ll enjoy every minute of breaking you.”

A narrow beam of light slices through the room, so bright that for a moment Alina thinks it’s just her. But no — the ray flashes clear as day, strobing crimson and cobalt. “What is that?”

Aleks turns, and his face darkens as he sees it, too. He nimbly hurdles off the bed, landing on his feet and padding to the cracked curtain.

A stone plummets in Alina’s gut. It can’t be.

If the lights and Aleks’s stunned expression weren’t enough, the whoop of a siren cuts through the quiet night.

“Fuck,” Alina gasps as the truth slams home, an avalanche of fear threatening to crush her. The cops are here, and I’m all tied up.

Chapter Text

“What are the police doing here?” Aleks sounds baffled, but deep in her gut, Alina already knows.

“It’s Mal.”

The older man’s scowl darkens, the police lights sparking off his silver highlights in a terrifying halo. “Are you sure?”

Somehow, he’s behind this. He has to be. “Yes.”

Aleks hurries to her side and grabs the crash shears resting on his bedside table. Without another word he starts to cut.

“Your rope—” Alina protests.

“If you’re right, it’ll take too long to untie you,” he says, the syllables clipped like the snick of the scissors running up the center of the legbinder. Every so often she feels the flash of cold as the scissors slide against her skin, but never once does she feel a pinch.

“You can’t talk to them first.”

The glance Aleks spares her looks like she’s suggested inviting the police to a costumed tea party. “ What?

“If they think it’s domestic violence and you answer the door, they’re automatically going to think you’re in control of the situation,” Alina explains breathlessly as he sets to work on eviscerating the beautiful harness. “If I answer, they’ll automatically be less suspicious.”

The knock sounds like it’s coming from the bedroom door. “Hold still, love,” Aleks growls as she twitches in alarm.

“Sasha, you have to trust me. Promise you’ll let me get it.”

Fear flickers in his eyes, but trust, too — and he nods. “All right.”

Then she’s free.

There isn’t time to mourn the shredded heap of rainbow knots scattered about the bedroom floor, vibrant deadfall. “No, don’t get dressed,” Alina says quickly, trying to think through the terrified percussion of her heart as she drags on her sweater and leggings, not even sparing time for underwear.

She can feel Aleks’s glower without even looking. “What?”

“Actually, can you tie your own wrists up?”

What?

“Anything to make it look like you aren’t the dominant one.” Alina glances at Aleks, and to her relief his jaw is set with understanding. “Seeing is believing, so let’s give them something to look at.”

A second trio of knocks reverberates through the house, sending a spike of adrenaline down her spine. “Just— get downstairs on the couch, come on!” She raises her voice to a shout as she tears out of the bedroom and sprints down the stairs: “Coming!”

Don’t fall don’t fall don’t fall—

She slows herself to a trot as she descends the staircase from the kitchen to the Rathskellar, giving Aleks’s footsteps time to reach the living room before she plasters an inquisitive look on her face and opens the basement door.

“Hi, sorry, I was upstairs,” she says brightly, adding a smile that seems to startle the two uniformed officers waiting outside. One’s younger, maybe in his late twenties, while the obvious leader is surely in his fifties. “Can I help you?”

“Good evening, ma’am,” the older officer asks, “We’re looking for Aleksander Morozova, is he available?”

Alina presses her lips together, pausing in feigned mortification. Not too much of a stretch right now. “He’s upstairs, but this isn’t a great time … can I help you?” She gives a little wave of greeting. “I’m his girlfriend Alina.” You’re talking too much! Panic screams through her mind as she cheerily adds, “Alina … Starkov?”

The officers exchange a befuddled look — one that makes something awful prickle along the nape of her neck. I was right.

“I’m Officer Hendricks, this is Officer Opjer,” the lead officer says before hedging. “We’d just like to talk to you both, if you’ve got a minute.”

She shrugs, wincing politely. “Um … sure? Come in.”

Though her smile is ironclad, Alina is wretched with helplessness as she lets them in, their bootfalls harsh and unfamiliar. 

Officer Opjer pauses beside her. “You alright, Miss Starkov? Seem to be sweating a bit there.”

“Yeah, I usually am,” Alina offers honestly. She closes the door and moves to the stairs, leading them up to … whatever Aleks has done with himself. Not knowing has her already-twisted gut in knots; at least it’s easy to give another pained grin. “Cancer leaves you with tons of fun little reminders. Like my body forgetting how to regulate temperature.”

“Sorry to hear it. What kind of cancer was it?” Officer Hendricks asks as they tromp upward.

“Synovial sarcoma — it’s a soft tissue cancer.” The script springs to her lips easily.

Tell me you’ve never heard of it.

“Haven’t heard of that one,” the older officer echoes as though reading her thoughts.

It’s a handhold in the chaotic storm in her mind. Abruptly, she has her bearings. “It’s pretty rare,” she rattles off easily. “Worst lottery ever.”

The younger officer, Opjer, actually chuckles at that before muttering an abashed apology. It’s music to Alina’s ears. If they’re laughing they’re relaxed, and if they’re relaxed, maybe this will go okay.

Aleks’s voice finds them as they round the corner into the kitchen. “Alina, I—”

Everything happens at once: Aleks turning around on the loveseat with his bound wrists in front of his bare chest, Alina’s startled meep, and the two officers recoiling with cries of “Whoa! ” and “ Oh shit! ” as though the sight of Aleks has burned their corneas.

“There’s a really good explanation for this,” Alina says, fighting to keep her voice from quavering when all she wants to do is dissolve into nervous giggles.

Hendricks waves a hand, leaning back against the kitchen counter, probably watching Aleks in his peripheral vision. “We’ll, uh, give you a minute to get dressed.”

“Alina, would you mind—?” Aleks asks in a strangled voice that hints at abject mortification. 

She looks to the police officers, and as soon as they wave her over, she hurries to Aleks’s side. Somehow he’s managed to knot a silken grey thing around both of his wrists, and she loosens it as quickly as possible, finding herself holding a crumpled, light charcoal tie once he’s free.

The fuck? Is this really the time for a joke? She glances sharply at him, but he only shrugs.

Fortunately, he had the foresight to grab a t-shirt and joggers as he ran down here from the bedroom — and he’s decent in a handful of seconds, accompanying Alina back to the kitchen as he drags the shirt down over his abdomen. He proffers a hand to the lead officer. “Aleks Morozova. How can I help, gentlemen?”

The officers exchange that bemused look again, and Alina relaxes enough to sink into one of the chairs beside the small table. “We received a call about a domestic disturbance, but it looks like there’s been some kind of mix-up,” Henricks explains, courteous enough that he looks a bit embarrassed himself.

Aleks draws out a chair for himself, his voice deceptively casual as he folds his lithe body into it and cleans his glasses with the hem of his shirt. “Who reported it, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“Sorry, we can’t disclose that,” Opjer pipes up.

“Couldn’t have been one of the neighbors,” Aleks drawls idly. “We can’t see or hear them, so I’m sure the inverse is true.”

Now. Say something now.  

Alina’s heart batters at her ribs, and she fiddles with her half-dead hand. “My housemate in town has been getting, uh … controlling lately, any chance it was him?”

Officer Henricks frowns as he settles his hands on his radio and the butt of his holstered gun, thinking. It’s probably a mindless gesture, but the reminder of the lethal thing that’s literally at the man’s fingertips makes her sick.

Anger floods Alina’s veins. Mal did this. He literally put Aleks in danger.

“The call was specific regarding this street address,” Henricks says. “Does your roommate know where you are?”

She shakes her head. “I’ve never told him. I’m sure of that.”

Aleks turns to Alina, only now beginning to show signs of worry. “Any chance he followed you?”

“Not tonight, it was just us on the road — and I’ve never given him your address—”

Then she remembers what he’d yelled after her in the kitchen, and her gut curdles.

Fuck.

“Alina?” Aleks asks, reaching across the table to give her hand a gentle squeeze.

“When I left tonight he said I know where you’re going. ” Her voice is tremulous, cold with the fear that’s warring with fiery fury in her chest. A scream of true terror that she can’t voice. “I thought he was just being a jerk, but maybe he meant…”

Alina scrabbles for her pentagram bag — still abandoned here with her jacket — and unzips it, upending it to dump its contents on the table. It doesn’t matter that the three men are watching her. Better, perhaps.

She’s sure, so sure. But even after clawing through her scattered wallet, makeup bag, lip balms, house keys, and loose change, there’s nothing out of the ordinary. An inner pocket reveals only a shower of emergency pads and tampons; one of the police officers coughs, clearly uncomfortable as prewrapped projectiles go skittering everywhere.

Nothing.

She’s about to start gathering her possessions in defeat when she feels it. A hard lump in the front of the bag, hardly bigger than a quarter.

It’s in the front pocket, the one she never uses. It’s too flat, a narrow, zippered circle of space outside the main pocket; even a pot of lip balm stowed there would warp the bag’s shape. But the thing in there right now is a tiny disc, its profile so low that she hasn’t even noticed it.

The whole front of the bag lops off in the burr of a zipper, and then it’s there before them all. A shiny fob of plastic and metal hardly larger than her thumbnail.

The officers step closer, gawking as Alina draws her hands away. All she can do is stare at the thing, horrorstruck. Vaguely she’s aware of Aleks resettling his glasses on the bridge of his nose, inspecting it without touching. “Is that yours?”

Alina shakes her head, so livid that she doesn’t trust herself to speak for a few heartbeats. Even then her voice emerges as a guttural hiss: “He’s fucking tracking me.”

“We’ve seen a few of these,” one of the officers — Henricks, maybe — says, sounding anything but optimistic. “We’ll see what we can do, but it’s hard to get information about who bought it, especially if it’s linked to a dead-end account.”

“This is your housemate, you said?” the other one asks.

Alina nods, her heart thrumming with rage.

The man coughs, his boots scuffing on the kitchen floor as he shifts his weight. “Might be a good idea to, uh, reconsider your living situation.”

Her blood sings in her ears as she nods again. Frozen in her own body.

All she can see is the tracker fob.

All she can think of is the police officers and their guns, wondering what could’ve happened if this situation had gone wrong.

Wondering if that isn’t exactly what Mal wanted.


Aleks sees the officers out, and Alina only remembers how to breathe when there’s a reassuring thump from the direction of the basement door. She’s still staring at her splayed-open bag when he returns, settling himself into the kitchen chair across from her once more.

Alina can feel him studying her. He’s rocking to and fro — no, she is. A habit she’s had since childhood, whenever she was so sick that she wanted to crawl out of her own body. She feels that now, the arse-cramping, gut-plummeting dread. “He’s gonna know.”

“Mal?”

She nods, numb from the crashing storm of emotions. “The tracker’s moving, and it’s going to stop at the police station. And now he knows where you live.”

“They managed to turn it off before they left.” He pauses. “If it’s linked to a prepaid phone, though, they may not be able to trace it back to Mal. If it really was him.”

Shame weighs on Alina, leaden. Pressing her down into the wooden chair, so heavy that it takes every ounce of effort just to lift her head and meet his gaze. “I’m so sorry, Aleks,” she mumbles, wretched with guilt. “This is all my fault.”

“Hey.” He reaches across the table, caging her good hand in both of his. “Don’t think that for a second.” His deep, musical voice is as steady as his quartz gaze. “We are each responsible for our own choices, and Mal is making his. You are making yours.”

I have nowhere to go.  

It’s the opposite of a choice, worse than all the places she’d had to drag herself during the one-two punch of chemo and radiation. Even in that pit of despair she’d always had a destination, a next place to be.

Right now the only thing tethering her to the earth is Aleks’s hands cradling her own.

A hysterical laugh spills out of Alina’s throat, sobs rising in her chest. “I have no idea what to do. I’d just worked myself around to the idea of moving out in a few weeks.”

“Alinochka…” Aleks presses her hand once, gently. Urging her — but his words come out cautiously all the same. “At the risk of sounding like I’m telling you what to do, I don’t think you should spend another night there. I’m worried about your safety.”

He’s right, of course. She’d been on edge before, when she thought the worst Mal might do was make snide comments or bang a few cupboards. Sleeping with her door locked, maybe something propped up against it if she felt uneasy, a glass bottle or something that would make a racket if it was tipped over.

I got lucky this time.

But luck only holds for so long.

“I don’t have anywhere else to go,” she admits, the words flat with exhaustion.

Aleks’s expression doesn’t change, but his shoulder rises in a faint approximation of a shrug. “You have here.”

“What, to live?” Alina snorts. “Be serious.”

“Why not?”

He’s watching her intently, dark eyes shining with purpose, and her heart stops entirely. Time suspending as they stare at each other.

Holy shit, he’s serious.

“Because… Because we just barely got through something awful together,” Alina splutters as other, more idealistic parts of her scream in outrage for not immediately saying yes . “If I move in with you right now, I’ll feel like my whole living situation can be destroyed in a single fight —and —and if I am upset, I might not say anything at all.” She wants to say cave so, so badly — but if she doesn’t carve out a space that’s well and truly hers, they won’t stand a chance. “I want there to be an us, and I don’t ever want to resent you, it’d hurt too much. And I know, I know that I’m bringing my own baggage into this, but—”

Alina breaks off — and even though Aleks nods somberly, the intensity of his gaze doesn’t change. If he’s disappointed, he’s doing a good job of not letting it show.

She squeezes his hand, heartened as he returns the soft pressure. “I don’t want to lose you again.”

“I understand,” he says softly. “At least stay with me until you get your next steps figured out. We can even put a time limit on it, if that makes you more comfortable. A month, maximum.” He runs his thumb over her knuckles, his beautiful face grave. “Whatever you decide, just know that you don’t have to go through this alone.”

She laces her fingers through his, grateful for those words.

A month. Can she trust that things between them will hold together that long?

Choose your pain, Genya had said. Choose your future.

I choose Aleks.

“Okay.” Alina tries it out warily, but it fits — and she repeats it. Confidently, now. “Okay.”

Aleks’s eyes narrow, and one dark brow arches above the frame of his glasses. “Is that a yes?”

Use your words, Alina. There are so many voices in her head — brain weasels, memories, fragments of dreams — but Aleks’s voice is kind. The way his hand tightens around hers is like his ropes, his knots, is a comfort she didn’t know could ever be hers.

“Yes,” she says firmly. “I’ll stay with you until I get my shit together.”

Aleks blows out a breath, and his visible relief makes her mouth tilt in a crooked smile. “Right, that’s settled. How much stuff do you have?”

It’s a perverse relief that her PTSD nightmares have prepared her for this. “Um, most of my things are in storage. I’ve got a few boxes at the house, but it’s mostly day-to-day stuff. Computer, clothes, some books … that’s basically it.”

“Any furniture?”

“No. —and don’t look at me like that,” Alina adds sternly as the first trace of pity clouds his features, “I’m not some waif cowering in a ditch just because I don’t own an armoire.”

He wrinkles his nose, somehow cuter than ever, dire circumstances notwithstanding. “An armoire?”

Way to be fucking adorable at the worst possible time. “It’s the first piece of furniture I could think of,” she explains, her voice shaking with a chagrined laugh.

“I don’t even own an armoire,” he chuckles, and then they’re caught in a swirl of ridiculous giggles together, until she finally sobers. He notes it, chin dipping as he does that looking into her thing. “What is it?”

Another time she might’ve ignored that niggling feeling at the back of her mind, but right now she knows better than to ignore her instincts. ““We need someone else with us.”

“Police?”

“No, I just…” There’s no other explanation but the truth: “I have a bad feeling about us going it alone. If Mal called the cops, he’ll be expecting me to go straight back. It’d make me feel better if we had another person with us.” There’s only one other person in Os Kervo who’ll have her back. “Someone he already knows, and might be able to get through to him if he’s” — ornery? furious? violent? — “difficult,” she finishes awkwardly, picking up her phone.

Don’t let fear run away with you. One thing at a time. Her hands don’t seem to get the message, because they tremble with adrenaline as she clicks the contact icon.

It’s barely begun to ring when Genya picks up, her voice tight with worry. “Hey babe, what’s wrong?”

“Mal called the cops on us — me and Aleks.”

“He did WHAT?” Genya shrieks, so loudly that Alina has to yank the handset away from her ear.

If she blinks, she can see it there on her bag still, an incriminating disc the size of a quarter. Such a little thing, to wreak all this damage. “He put a fucking tracker in my bag.”

“That is literal stalking, darling. Is that why you said—”

“—that thing when you dropped me off?” Alina says wearily. God, was that only a couple of hours ago? She’s lived lifetimes since then. “Yeah.”

Aleks catches her eyes and mouths, What thing?

Later, she mouths back, and he nods. Her heart thumps with extra force as she drums up her courage. “Look, Gen, I hate to ask, but is there any way you could come with us to get my stuff out of there?”

“Like … tonight?”

Alina winces. “Kinda.”

There’s a pause, stretching out so long that she checks to see if the call’s been dropped. “You’re moving in with Aleks?” Genya finally asks.

“Temporarily,” Alina says quickly. “Just ’til I figure things out.”

This time there’s no delay. “No problem, babe. Do you want me to head straight there?”

“It should take us about a half-hour to get there — if you get there early just park up the street, okay? I don’t want him to know we’re coming until we’re all together.”

More instinct. And truth be told, it’s a relief to know she isn’t going it alone. Not today, Malyen.

“Strength in numbers,” Genya agrees heartily. “I’m across town, text me if you need anything. Otherwise, I’ll see you there in thirty.”

Relief enfolds Alina in a comforting, palpable blanket. “Thank you, Gen.”

“Anytime, my love.”

Aleks rises as she hangs up, and his arms cage her against him as she burrows into his chest. Shame, resentment, relief are all flooding her mind, making it impossible to think.

So she doesn’t. His embrace is the eye of this storm, a brief respite before … before…

One hand roams over Alina’s back in reassuring ovals, and Aleks presses a kiss to her forehead. “This is not your fault.”

“Then why does it feel like it is?” she asks, the words muffled against his t-shirt. 

“Because that’s what abusers do.” She looks up at him, and the understanding in his dark gaze matches the awful thing inside her. “My mum, remember?” His lips curve, but she can only see his pain. “She was a real piece of work.”

For her it was heroin. For Mal it’s attention. Same thing, in the end.

“I’m sorry,” she murmurs.

The hand at her back comes up to stroke her cheek. “You have nothing to be sorry for,” Aleks says, the words as tender as his touch. “Now, let’s go get your things.”


Twenty-eight minutes later they arrive at the place Alina never truly thought of as home, and now never will. Genya joins them, the Charger’s lights blinking like the Cheshire cat’s glowing eyes as they take the final turn, and they park one behind the other. There seem to be more vehicles than usual silently lined up beside the curb, as though it’s a hopping Thursday night in Os Kervo. Maybe the neighbors are throwing a party.  

Terror clamps around Alina’s ribs, her breaths almost panting as the cold night air hits her lungs. At least the apartment’s front window is empty as they trudge up the walkway, no sign of a close-cropped head disturbing the view of the faucets and the kitchen beyond. Mal is definitely home — that much is evident from his truck in the driveway — but he must either be in the living room or his bedroom.

Then it’s not the duplex door that claims Alina’s attention, but the nearby underbrush.

Aleks draws even with her, his aura of warmth enveloping Alina as he stands beside her. “Looking for something?”

Alina shakes her head mutely. Keeping an eye out for a feral black cat on a dark night seems like a losing bet. I’m going to need all my luck just to get through this.

Fear claws at her as they reach the front door, and her hand freezes in midair as she reaches for the knob. It’s not fair. This should be a regular Thursday night, not the end of nearly everything she’d considered safe and familiar. 

I didn’t do this. It isn’t my fault. But I’m paying for it all the same.

“You can do this,” Genya reassures her quietly. “We’ve got your back.”

“Figuratively and literally.” Aleks adds.

Alina turns to them, and the confidence that she needs is written there on their faces. Not the family she always wishes she’s had — some idealized version of her parents, of Mal, even — but the people who were actually here for her when she needed them most. “Thank you. Both of you.”

“Oh!” Aleks digs something out of his pocket: a roll of dark garbage bags. “Not the fanciest, but they’re citrus-scented,” he says sheepishly.

For some reason that makes her smile — and though she’s still so afraid that she feels shaky, sweaty, sick, she turns back and unlocks the front door.

Mal’s voice finds her when she’s barely over the threshold. “Good, you’re home. The cops said—”

He rounds the corner from the living room as they file into the kitchen, scuffing their boots to knock off the snow — and he breaks off as he sees Aleks and Genya.

Alina seizes on his stunned silence. “Found your AirTag. You weren’t even creative.”

“What are you talking about?” he demands. He even has the gall to look offended.

“There is no possible way you can rationalize stalking me, you absolute shit!” she hisses.

“Ok, calm down, Alina.” Mal rolls his eyes, sighing heavily. “Can we at least talk privately before you start throwing around wild accusations?”

He sounds like she’s blaming him for taking the last of the milk, not something serious — and it’s a genuine relief to feel Genya and Aleks flanking her, silent guardians. “Absolutely not.”

“Is that why you showed up in force?” His gaze hardens, and he folds his arms over his chest. “Are Genya and the abuser part of this, too?”

“They’re here to help me move out,” Alina says coolly.

Mal laughs, a harsh, humorless sound that grates on her ears and makes her gut tense. “Move? No, you’re not moving.”

Alina’s knees are shaking, her skin thrilling with queasy fear, but she lifts her chin. “I can assure you, I am. Right now, in fact.”

“Then you have lost your damn mind!” Mal flings an accusing finger in Aleks’s direction. “This guy hits you!”

“Only when I ask him nicely,” Alina bites out, a savage grin claiming her lips as Mal’s brown eyes flare with shock. “Which is none of your business, incidentally.”

For a few heartbeats he only stares, like he can’t believe his eyes. “Who the fuck are you and what have you done with my Alina?”

I was never your Alina, ” she snarls, the words blazing out of the inferno in her chest — fury that he could ever think she belonged to anyone but herself, let alone him.

Mal’s gaze goes flat with arrogance as he regains his composure. “It’s not just me that thinks you’re being irrational.”

“I don’t really give a shit what Mikhael and Dubrov think of me.”

“Not them.” Mal doesn’t look away from her but his shoulders turn, skewing toward the living room door as he calls, “Come on in, guys.”

Footsteps from the other room make Alina jump. Who the fuck

Not strangers. Gods, if only it had been anyone but them, the last people on earth Alina would ever want to see again.

Nikolai, golden-haired, his eyes chips of blue ice even under the kitchen’s amber lights. Zoya, all cheekbones and elegance, her glossy black hair cascading down the front of her designer sweater.

Alina’s body flushes, blood pressure spiking, sweat blooming on her skin as they join Mal. A pair of gut punches in human form, facing off against her, Aleks, and Genya like an arrowhead of enemy gunslingers.

She drags in a breath and then exhales slower, trying to hide the way she’s rattled, every nerve fiber screaming at her to escape. “I see I wasn’t the only one who showed up in force.”

“Hey Alya,” Nik says, his tone as pitying as his expression.

If I lose my temper, he wins. It takes all her effort not to howl with the force of her rage. “You do not get to call me that anymore.”

“This, for anyone not keeping up, is the ex-husband and the woman he cheated with, the ex-best friend,” Genya pipes up from behind her, sugar-sweet.

Zoya’s head snaps around toward Genya, her luminous eyes narrowed with annoyance. “Do you have to be so crass?”

“Just filling in the gaps,” Genya offers brightly.

Nikolai strolls toward Aleks, unhurried. “This must be the new boyfriend.” He looks the silvershot man over from head to foot, upper lip curled with distaste. “God, he is old.”

Alina’s breath hisses between clenched teeth, but he’s already moving away, back toward their half of the kitchen. 

Aleks only smiles at Alina, thoroughly untroubled by Nik’s macho posturing. “Does he actually think that’s going to bother me?” he asks mildly.

She turns back to Mal, staring so hard that the rest of the room vanishes around him, her perfidious ex-husband and ex-bestie along with it. “What are they doing here?”

“We’re here to talk some sense into you,” Nikolai says.

“Sense.” Alina levels a glare at each of them in turn. “You three.”

Zoya adopts that same sickly condescension. “Alina, it’s only been a few months — even after that, the three of us know you better than anyone.”

“You and Nik know each other especially well,” Alina replies, every syllable razor-sharp.

“You were the one telling me about how your marriage was on the rocks even before the cancer.” It’s truly astonishing how much bullshit Zoya can spew without ruining the mirror finish on her crimson-lacquered lips. “The rest was just” —she shrugs prettily— “bad timing.”

“I was confiding in you, Zoya,” Alina snaps. “That wasn’t an invitation to hop into bed with my husband!”

“Did you seriously just call her cancer bad timing? ” Genya demands from her four o’clock position.

Zoya spares her a poisonous look. “You know what I mean, Genya.”

“You two absolutely deserve each other,” Alina marvels. They actually thought they still had some kind of control over me. She turns her searing gaze on Mal. “And you are lucky that I value our years of friendship enough to not have the police arrest you for stalking.”

Stalking? ” Mal blusters.

Alina nods soberly. “Found your AirTag, remember?”

“Listen, I have no idea how one of my AirTags ended up in your purse—”

“She didn’t say it was in her purse,” Aleks says suddenly.

Fuck, he’s right. Alina’s skin tightens, the battleground between diaphoretic heat and the sickening chill of fear as Mal’s gaze darts to Aleks. “Oh, now you have something to say, Gandalf?” the younger man demands.

Aleks simply shrugs. “How else could you have known unless you put it there?”

“It must’ve fallen in by accident,” Mal mutters.

“Yes, I’m sure it fell off the counter, rolled under my door and up into my bag.” Alina’s blood seethes in her veins. He must’ve put it in my bag when I was in the shower. It’s the only time she leaves the door unlocked; it’s a simple twist lock without a keyhole on the far side. “What is wrong with you?”

“What’s wrong with you? ” Mal argues. “A day of tests physically wipes you out, you shouldn’t be getting treated roughly.” A patchy blush rises to fill his neck. “A guy who actually cared about you would be kind to you.”

Alina huffs a breathless laugh, her mind reeling. “You are making so many terrible assumptions, I genuinely don’t know where to start.”

“You can’t tell me those bruises on your legs weren’t intentional,” Mal snaps as Nikolai and Zoya exchange a glance.

“It’s called BDSM, Mal, and it’s a healthy framework for consensual sex.” Alina nips the inside of her cheek, on the verge of nervous giggles. “Grow up.”

“There’s no such thing as healthy BDSM, ” Mal declares as behind him, Nikolai and Zoya blanch.

“If you only saw their faces just now,” Genya snickers from the background.

Nikolai steps toward, ignoring Mal’s startled glance. “Alina, you cannot move in with a complete stranger.”

Had they been expecting her to be as they’d last seen her, sick and weak? It’s the only explanation for this awful triumvirate thinking they still hold sway in her life. 

You have no power over me, fucklords.  

“Sasha might be a stranger to you, but he isn’t to me.” Alina allows herself a dry smirk. “Anyway, I guarantee I’d be far safer living with him than any of you.”

“You can’t afford to move out,” Mal sneers, ugly with triumph.

But the realization that she’s already winning just by being here, just by holding her own against them, is so powerful that while her heartbeat doesn’t slow, it steadies. “And yet we came armed with bags.” She half-turns to Aleks, still deadass staring at Mal. “What scent again, love?”

“Citrus,” Aleks says evenly.

Alina arches an eyebrow at Mal — and a bitter part of her is pleased to see his countenance sour even more. “You’ll never be able to afford a place that’s safe. Not on your disability.”

Fuck. Her biggest fear, the reason that she moved in with Mal to begin with, if she’s honest with herself. But she isn’t going to let him see that; instead she lifts her chin, drawing a haughty mask over her bone-deep dread. “Of course I can.”

“Really?” Mal challenges. “Where.”

It isn’t a question. As though he knows he finally has her cornered, and that she has no true answer to offer.

“She’s moving in with me.”

Everyone turns to look at Genya. She flashes a giant grin as she scoops up her phone, which has — strangely— been sitting propped up on the countertop behind her. “Oh hey, don’t mind me, darlings, just livestreaming on TikTok so the world can see what idiot sandwiches the three of you are.”

The fuck?

There’s too much to process all at once. Alina licks her lips, swallows hard, but her voice still emerges as a rasping croak. “Gen…”

Genya winks at her. “No, it’s alright for them to know, it’s a done deal. I’m closing on my place in a few weeks.” Her grins cheekily. “And unlike you three twats, I give a fuck about what Alina actually wants.”

Nothing has made her cry here tonight — but the warmth in Genya’s eyes as her head dips in a barely perceptible nod … that makes fire sear the inner corners of her eyes, and the world wavers through a veil of tears.

She never would have asked. Couldn’t, for fear of imposing and trampling on Genya’s newfound freedom, her autonomy in choosing a roommate — but the love shining in her friend’s eyes is irrefutable. 

She means it. She has my back.

Alina gives a tiny nod of her own, trying to tread water amid the surging waves of gratitude. Thank you, Gen.

Mal, Nikolai, and Zoya are still frozen, each of their faces a different rictus of horror as they stare at the phone in Genya’s hand. There’s nowhere to run, nothing they can possibly say to excuse their awful behavior.

“You’re not really livestreaming,” Zoya says to Genya — but she’s stroking her hair, twirling it around her forefinger the way she does when she’s nervous.

Genya’s teeth flash in a perilous grin. “Willing to bet on that?”

Alina squares her shoulders. The pin at the far left end of her collarbone snaps with pain, but she hardly notices it.

“I’m getting away from you. All of you.” She meets their gazes one at a time. Savoring their shock, their helplessness as they’re stripped bare before the world. Revealed for the manipulators that they truly are. “Because I know what’s good for me, and you three are toxic.”

Mal’s gaping mouth snaps shut, and he glowers at Aleks. “Nothing to say?”

“Alina’s perfectly capable of speaking for herself,” Aleks replies coolly. His dark eyes find hers, blazing with pride. Love, too — richer and stronger than anything these three have ever offered. “She doesn’t need me to fight her battles, she just happens to like having me around.”

Maybe home isn’t a place but people — because even though she doesn’t belong to this place, in that moment, gazing into Aleks’s fathomless eyes, Alina knows she’s home.

She swallows hard, her heart beating like a kettledrum. “Let’s pack it up, guys. Time to go.”


It’s all a whirlwind after Mal and the others retreat into the living room. Alina throws everything she owns into garbage bags and half-empty boxes, the eclectic shreds of her life disappearing as though swallowed up by tangerine-scented oblivion.

“Dude,” Alina mutters as Genya joins her in the bedroom, grabbing the first of the bags to take to her car. “You don’t have to let me move in with you.”

Genya’s pretty face wrinkles in a look that says duh. “Of course I don’t have to. I want to. Besides, you’re the one who’s doing me a favor — I don’t want to have to explain kink to some rando.” She beams. “ You, for instance, won’t object if I put a sex swing in the basement.”

“Were you really livestreaming all of that?”

“Girl, no way,” Genya snorts, and Alina’s disappointment crests until she adds, “I was recording. There is an award-worthy TikTok in it, and I’m not going to let the rest of the internet beat me to dragging them.”

Even though they’re in a hurry, and the last thing Alina wants is to stay here longer than she has to, she spares a few seconds to give Genya a massive, lopsided hug.

It doesn’t take long to round up her belongings; everything is loaded comfortably in the two cars within a half hour. Then Aleks helps her slip the house key off her D20 key ring, leaving only the fob that opens her storage unit.

“Anything else?” he asks quietly.

Alina shakes her head. She exchanges a knowing look with Genya — and then her palms are sweaty again, her stomach churning. The key clinks quietly as she sets it down on the counter. The food in the cabinets and refrigerator he can have; all the important things are already gone. Except for me.

“I’m leaving my key on the counter,” Alina calls toward the living room.

Bile corrodes the back of her throat at the stomping footfalls, and Mal reappears in the doorway to the kitchen, seemingly oblivious to the way Genya’s phone leaps to her hand. “So you’re just going to leave me in a lurch on bills?”

“What d’you mean, bills? ” Alina growls, incensed. “I’m paid up on rent through the end of the month.”

“What about heat and electric? How am I supposed to get someone else to replace you at this time of year?”

Alina sets her jaw to counter the guilt that flares through her. “That’s not my problem.”

“I could be evicted — that isn’t your problem?” Mal half-steps toward her, and for a few moments, she sees him again. The friend that he used to be. “Alina, you can’t do this to me.”

Aleks is faster than her. “This should cover anything she owes.”

He pulls his wallet out of his jacket pocket, and Alina groans inwardly as he fishes out a small stack of twenties. That’s gotta be at least a hundred dollars, he can’t

“I trust that will settle things,” Aleks says, the words covered in hoarfrost. He tucks his wallet back into his pocket and gestures to the door. “Ladies?”

The last thing Alina sees before she leaves the apartment is their faces.

Nikolai, his blue eyes wide and startled, disbelieving. Underestimating her one final time.

Zoya, her model-perfect features contorted in a sneer, jealous to the last.

And Mal, his familiar features rendered ugly in his fury. He’s outraged. Impotent. Defeated, even if he refuses to acknowledge it yet.

Maybe someday he’ll snap out of it, but that day isn’t today. I have my own life to live.

Then Alina’s over the threshold for the last time, Genya before her and Aleks at her back.

The thump of the door shutting behind them, the crystal-cold air stinging her throat … it’s utterly surreal. She slows, letting Aleks draw even with her beside his car. “Remind me that it’s going to be okay.”

His eyes shine like the stars overhead. “It’s going to be okay.”

The kiss he presses to her lips is fierce, fiery, sure. The first of her new life.

Aleks opens the car door for her, and moments later they’re buckling themselves in. “I’ll pay you back, by the way,” she tells him as the sedan purrs to life.

Aleks grins — that handsome, goofy smile that’s for her alone. “Save your money for your new place.” He suddenly hunches, stern brows drawing together in a scowl of concentration as something across the street catches his attention. “Bloody hell, is that Megachonk?”

Alina leans toward him, and Aleks rolls the window down, letting her see past the fogged glass. Sure enough, the hulking black cat is prowling across the street, tipped ear giving him away. He freezes as Aleks’s headlights blink on, illuminating him like a spotlight.

“Yeah, that’s him.” A pang of reluctance goes through Alina as his yellow-green eyes meet hers one last time, glowing lanterns that glare right through her. Goodbye, wild Chonky Boi. I’ll miss you. “Hope he’ll be okay.”

Away down the street, a front door swings open, and a high, clear voice rings through the night. “Count Floofendorf!”

The fluffy cat immediately turns and begins trotting away toward the open doorway like he’s on a mission.

“—the fuck?” Alina gasps. I can’t have heard that right.

Floofendorf? ” Aleks echoes.

They stare at each other for a split second, then Aleks puts the car in gear, trailing the cat from a safe distance.

“There!” Aleks stops shy of the house with the open door, pointing at a shadow that flits across its front yard.

Megachonk doesn’t hesitate, but trots up the front steps like he owns them. A girl who can’t be any older than ten is waiting at the door to scoop him up; he looks like a lion in her arms, settling his paws on her shoulder as she supports his generous fuzzy rump. 

With a final gilt glare from Megachonk, both cat and girl vanish inside, the door swinging shut behind them.

It hits her as viscerally as a punch. He was feral, but he learned how to love again anyway. I thought he was lost, but he had a home waiting for him all along. 

“Count Floofendorf,” Aleks murmurs, shaking his head in disbelief.

The giggles bubble up like a wellspring in Alina’s chest — laughter that shakes her whole body, laughter that claims her breath until she’s gasping, weeping, sobbing with release. All the emotions she’s been holding back pouring out all at once.

“Hey.” Aleks covers her hand with his own, squeezing gently. His voice is gentle with concern. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” Alina whispers the tears tracing her laughter lines as she smiles, lacing her fingers through his as she scrubs her face on her sleeve. “I promise.”

The present becomes the past as Aleks smiles at her, and he nudges the car into motion again, heading away into their new life. One that’s already so full of love, it feels like their tiny caravan is traveling away into another world altogether.

The darkling sky is only broken by shimmering stars — and for the first time in what feels like forever, Alina’s future truly looks bright.

Chapter Text

Thirty-six.

That’s the number of days Alina stays with Aleks, until Genya officially closes on their new home. An extra week in the end, including several days of cleaning the unit — and when her eyes open on the final morning, she’s already awash in emotions.

Aleks is usually still asleep this early on the weekends, but this last morning he’s awake, glasses on and everything. Propped up on his elbow, one arm slung over her waist as she blinks stickily, squinting up at him.

“Morning, creeper,” she mumbles.

The older man whiffs a laugh, his mouth slanting in a crooked smile. “Morning, love. Sleep alright?”

Alina nods. The nightmares are still there, of course, but they fade faster now that she has something wonderful to wake up to. A life full of promise. “I’m surprised you’re conscious.”

“Yeah, well, big day, isn’t it?” There’s only a flicker of disappointment in his eyes — and she runs his hand along his arm, trying to reassure him. I’m not going anywhere. Not really. He nods at something above her head. “Mrs. Bates is going to miss you.”

Alina twists her head to follow his gaze, but she already knows what’s there as the tiny motor roars to life, and fur tickles her forehead. She reaches up to scritch the cat’s tiny head, and smirks knowingly at Aleks. “Mrs. Bates, huh?”

He shrugs. “She doesn’t sleep on my pillow.”

“She only loves me for my body heat,” Alina sighs.

“That makes two of us.”

She arches an eyebrow, but Aleks maintains his innocent expression. “Yeah, well, tell Mrs. Bates not to make any designs on my side of the bed. I plan on being here a lot.”

“Good.” With that he looks satisfied again, and Alina shares his smile he leans close. His kiss is warm, familiar, and still sends a shockwave of need thrumming through her core.

This is love. It’s sexy but dependable, it’s knowing him, trusting him, it’s being vulnerable and strong and a hundred other things besides. She’d introduced him to the gif of Pacha and Kuzco back-to-back, and without hesitation he’d said, “Where’d you find that video of us?” — and that’s love, too. Knowing that they’re in this relationship together as equals. Scarred trees that are growing together, trunks and limbs entwining as they find the sky.

“I’m going to go jump in the shower,” Aleks murmurs when the kiss breaks.

“Don’t do that, you might break a hip,” Alina teases, then squeals as he tickles her side.

“Sweet little brat…” He kisses her forehead. “Come find me if you get lonely.”

“Be there in a few.”

The sight of him walking away always sends a thrill of primal lust through her, but she reluctantly tamps it down. Time to focus. She ran through the checklist of things over and over before falling asleep last night, now it’s time to do it all for real.

Take morning meds. Check.

Pack up clothes. Seeing the empty the bureau drawers that Aleks had cleaned out for her that first night sends a wistful wave through Alina. It aches to see them bare again, but she’s already on the cusp of overstaying her self-imposed welcome, pushing the month-long limit they’d originally agreed to.

She’s ready for independence. Not from him, but for him. For the relationship they’re building brick by brick.

Chase down cables. They’re all over the place: phone charger beside the bed, laptop power cable in the living room, vape charger from the kitchen counter. She’s grateful for the device’s discretion, allowing her to take hits inside without messing up the woodsmoke-scented air. Even though Aleks had sworn he hadn’t cared, it set Alina’s mind at ease to make the switch.

Glancing at the loveseat reminds her to retrieve a black thong that accidentally got lost between its cushions — the collateral damage of their predilection for fucking on it, cramped size notwithstanding. It’ll be strange not sitting here doodling on the tablet while he painstakingly works on his models, the scent of his paints mingling with charred wood.

Pajamas. She strips, tucking the tank and boxers away in her backpack. The only things left are her towel and toiletries; everything else is in her bags. It’s like that first night, her entire presence gathered together in a nexus of Alina while all that is him enfolds her, welcoming and safe.

Aleks saunters back into the room as though her thoughts have conjured him up, silver-black hair touseled, water dripping down the planes of his abdomen to the towel slung around his hips. “Christ,” he groans as his dark gaze roves over her naked body, drinking her in, and he readjusts his dick under the terrycloth. “Well this is fucking torture.”

Alina sticks out her tongue and wiggles her arse, snickering at his predatory scowl.

“You know what else is torture?”

Here we go,” Alina groans, rolling her eyes in feigned exasperation as she swallows back giggles.

He strolls to the bureau and taps the small, rectangular package that’s covered in obnoxiously iridescent wrapping paper. “Can I open this yet?”

“Nope,” Alina says cheerily, batting her eyes innocently as he growls, deliciously irked.

“It’s been a week .” He prowls toward her, seducing her with his magnetic gaze. “And I have been very, very good, my love.”

Okay, maybe he gets a breadcrumb. “Tell you what,” Alina concedes, “you can bring it today and open it at the new place.” She trails her good hand over her thighs, barely holding her own against his onslaught of raw sexiness. “And maybe that won’t be the only thing you get to open.”

“That’s a reasonable compromise,” Aleks purrs, slipping an arm about her waist and drawing her body flush with his. “I suppose I can wait a few more hours.”

Her bare breasts are pressed to his chest, her nipples hardening against his sunbaked heat, and she can feel his stiffening cock nudging against her leg through his towel. She’s slickening by the second, her pussy stirring wantonly. Not yet. “Aww, now I’m all wet,” she complains playfully.

Aleks’s hand drops to her arse cheek and squeezes, the touch both lustful and loving. “Glad I have that effect on you.” 

“Always,” Alina murmurs.

She goes up on her toes to kiss him, carding her fingers through his silvershot hair. His lips are electric euphoria, his mouth slanting over hers, claiming her as a growl rumbles through his chest.

Mine.

Finally, gently, he pushes her away, patting her arse cheek again. A muscle ticks in the hollow of his jaw, like he’s holding himself back as hard as she is. “Go on, get yourself clean, you dirty thing.”

“Or what?” Alina asks, her voice throaty with thwarted hunger.

Danger burns in Aleks’s eyes. “Or I’ll make you even dirtier.”

Even knowing they don’t really have time for a tumble, she’s tempted to throw self-control aside and drag him into bed. It takes all her willpower to ignore the primal desire and hurry out of the bedroom.

Alina showers quickly. It seems like a waste to bathe before moving day, when they’ll surely get begrimed in sweat and dirt, but all the better to fuck Aleks later. Her toiletries all fit in the zippered plastic tote, and she dries both it and herself before returning to the bedroom.

Aleks is reclining on the freshly-made bed, looking comfortably inviting in a black t-shirt and jeans. As per usual, she’s jealous of the book cradled in his graceful fingers, but the thought of seeing her own books again makes her heart leap. “I think this is the last of it.” She sets the tote down beside her backpack and reaches for her clean clothes.

“Don’t forget to get your things from the bureau,” Aleks says idly, distracted with his reading.

Alina nods. Check. “Already done.”

“Are you sure?”

That snags her attention. She glances up at him, squinting warily, but he’s the picture of innocence. “Um.. .Yes? I did it, like, ten minutes ago.”

He lifts a shoulder, his gaze dropping back to his book, an Anne McCaffrey trade paperback with a cracked spine that suggests it’s been read a hundred times. “Maybe you should double-check.”

Alina’s heart thuds, every nerve abruptly on edge.

It’s nothing. I’m just imagining things, he’s not being weird.  

But she’s learning to trust her instincts, and while she’s certain it’s anything but malicious, something is afoot. Aleks’s strange, laid-back insistence is suspicious as hell.

It’s reassuring to be with someone who sucks at lying.

“Go on, then,” Aleks urges mildly, turning a page as though he’s fully engrossed in stories of Altair and Capella. “Don’t want to forget anything.”

Eyes narrowed, Alina turns and pads to the bureau. The image of the empty drawers is distinct in her mind — but she’s so leery that she actually pauses, hand outstretched to the handle, and turns back to throw him a look.

Aleks sets his book aside and slips off the bed. He tucks his hands in his back pockets as he strolls over to join her, nodding at the bureau again. “It won’t bite, I promise.”

What the fuck? “Won’t bite? Why would it bite?”

“Just open the damn drawer, Alya,” Aleks chuckles.

She finally does, and at first glance it seems empty — but there’s a metallic ping as something small connects with the back of the drawer, then the front. Whizzing forward like a flattened pinball.

Bronze glints up at her as it stops. 

A key.

Alina’s stomach swoops as she turns back to Aleks.

“To add to the key to your new place,” he explains with a shy smile. “I want you to always feel like you’re welcome here. You living here these past few weeks has been like a honeymoon from reality, and I…” He swallows hard, his cheeks flushing. “I hope you’ll make yourself at home here whenever you like.”

The knot in her throat pulls tight, choking back words — but she throws herself into his arms, good and bad arms flung about his neck.

“Steady on,” Aleks laughs, but his arms are around her, too, squeezing tight.

It’s almost enough to let him open his present early. 

Almost.


Space is the first word that floats into Alina’s mind as Aleks parks in the little lot flanking the pale green building. The units are arranged side by side, each with its own tidy swatch of backyard, and a communal lawn beyond them that gives way to the rushing stream.

The weather has turned cold, and the tip of Alina’s nose and ears tingle as she gets out of the car. She cradles the bag of pastries in the crook of her bad arm, ready to catch herself with the good one if she loses her balance, but the walkway to the front of the unit is shoveled and sanded.

“Wow,” she murmurs, listening to the stream’s burbling song and the cries of winter birds. In her peripheral vision, Aleks nods in mute agreement.

The front door swings open as they’re at the foot of the wooden steps — and it’s not an amber-haired woman but a dour, dark-haired man who freezes as he sees them, staring at them like a spooked animal.

Aleks is the only one who doesn’t react, smoothly stepping around Alina and starting up the steps. “Morning, David,” he says casually. “Coffee?”

He holds out the cardboard tray, spinning it so the extra is pointed in David’s direction. The quiet man tentatively takes it out, urged on by Aleks, handling the cardboard cup like it’s a caffeinated grenade.

Alina and David wave awkwardly as they pass, and suspicion creeps through Alina as she catches up with Aleks on the front landing. “You knew he’d be here, didn’t you?”

“I suspected as much,” Aleks admits with a grin, knocking on the door.

Alina gapes at him, torn between delight and lighthearted outrage. “How the hell did you randomly guess that?”

He sighs winsomely. “My powers are as mysterious as they are powerful.”

“Your powers are powerful?”

“Obviously,” Aleks snorts, deadpan. “That’s what makes them powers.”

They’re cracking up as the door swings open, and this time it’s Genya, hair piled in a messy bun and grin brighter than ever. “Welcome home, my love! And you came bearing sugar and caffeine, two of my favorite vices.”

“Probably should’ve brought some protein,” Alina realizes aloud.

“Hurtful,” Aleks teases. “I’m standing right here.”

“Genya, take the coffees?”

“Sure thing, darling.”

As soon as the drinks are safely in Genya’s hands, Alina slips her hand inside Aleks’s coat, tickling him so that he yelps.

The house is empty, floors stripped down to plywood, the product of the last few days’ hard work. Already it’s a thousand percent better than the befouled, cigarette-scented wreck that Genya had inherited when she officially closed, and they sprawl on the bare wood floor, staring out the imposing windows as they stuff their faces. Compared to anywhere Alina’s lived — properly lived — in her adult life, this place joins Aleks’s home in the class of idyllic.

Alina holds up a pastry for Aleks. “Cinnamon roll for my cinnamon roll.”

“A very big and manly cinnamon roll,” he corrects, and takes it with his mouth. They snort with laughter as a cascade of crumbs falls on the front of his t-shirt.

“Ye gods, I turned you into a crumbola, too!” Alina gasps in mock astonishment, then flashes her eyebrows. “ Now who’s the powerful one?”

Genya shakes her head, pursing her lips like she’s holding back a grin. “It’s a good thing I’ve seen what you can do to staircase carpeting, or I’d be calling you sickeningly adorable.”

“Speaking of adorable—” Alina hits Genya with a hawkish look. “Are you going to fess up about you and Mr. Kostyk, or will I be turning my questionable superpowers on you next?”

“See, this is why I don’t like going to the grocery store,” Genya mutters as her cheeks flush pink. “I run into people I actually know.

Alina throws a sidelong glance at Aleks, who smirks around his pastry. “Yeah, forgot to mention I saw them there last night. Though to be fair, I was incredibly distracted at the time.”

Oops. Alina tries not to look guilty, remembering the series of increasingly racy photos she’d texted him on the way back from campus meetings,

“On the note of distractions…”

Genya scoots closer, pulling out her phone, and Alina groans. “Not again.”

“I’m not gonna make you watch it again,” Genya insists as she thumbs TikTok open and taps to the video. “But there — look!”

A million views. It’s unbelievable, yet indisputable.

“You did a great job on it,” Alina admits as the video autoplays, the shots of Mal overlaid with cartoony effects and Genya narrating in the bright, enthusiastic tone of a sports announcer doing play-by-play commentary.

“Is he going for it? Yes he is — we’re seeing a full DARVO here, folks! Denial, attack, and reversing victim and offender, the gaslighting triple-play—”

She’s nowhere in the video, her entire presence redacted by Genya’s editing, but it still makes her vaguely nauseous to remember that night.

“Not the hit count,” Genya insists. “ This. ” She swipes the comments open, scrolling through them as Alina holds the phone. “All of these stories.”

This reminds me of my ex—

omg this ABSOLUTELY happened to me—

I’m showing this to my mom asafp—

They just keep going. So many of them that Alina loses count.

“Oh,” she says quietly, blinking hard as heat pricks at the inner corners of her eyes. It’s one thing knowing that statistically she’s not alone; it’s another thing seeing the others for herself, even if they’re only anonymous usernames.

When she’s sure she isn’t going to bawl, she looks up at Genya. “And you’re sure— you’re absolutely sure Mal can’t come after you for this?”

“Not according to Botkin,” Genya says cheerfully. “No reasonable expectation of privacy — it’s not like we were all having it out in the bathroom.” Her humor wanes. “Why?”

“Alya’s been getting some nasty texts,” Aleks explains from Alina’s other side. For the first time this morning there’s that quiet tension in his voice — but it doesn’t make her feel anxious like she used to. He’ll never blow up. Not like that.

“Who from?” Genya demands, instantly looking like she’s about to throw down and choke someone out with her scrunchie. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine — and changing my number.” Alina’s mouth tightens in a mirthless smile. “Turns out Nik and Zoya are still finding places they’re banned from.”

“And will be for a long time to come,” Aleks adds grimly. “It’s probably not every door that’s closed to them, but all the important ones are. They’ll have to drive past Boston to find a dungeon that’ll accept them.”

“And Mal — excuse me, DARVO Dickhead,” Genya amends, “will have a seriously hard time finding a date who hasn’t heard of him. His dating pool has been reduced to girls who live under rocks … so starfish, basically.”

Alina gives a startled laugh. “ DARVO Dickhead?

“Really wish I could claim to’ve coined that one, but that’s straight from the social media hive-mind.”

A knock on the door makes them all jump. Genya and Alina exchange a confused look. “Not me,” Alina says. There’s no way the truck is here this early.

“My shit’s already been delivered,” Genya replies warily.

They prowl toward the door like startled cats, and Genya yanks the door open to find an equally startled delivery driver waiting outside. “Um, sorry, Miss” —he checks his tablet— “Starkov?”

Alina’s cheeks go hot as Genya turns back to her. “That’s me, but I have no idea—”

“It’s from me.” Aleks volunteers. He smiles sheepishly as he joins them. “Bit of a housewarming present.”

Alina swipes her finger across the signature line on the tablet, and her eyes bug out of her head when she sees the packages propped against the front steps. Two of them, identical, large enough that she could probably fit inside them if she was lying perfectly flat. “Big present.”

“Should be. It’s furniture.”

Furniture? ” Alina’s jaw goes slack, and her stomach plummets past her feet. “Aleks, please don’t tell me you got me an armoire.”

“You and your obsession with wardrobes, Miss Pevensie,” the bespectacled man chuckles, shaking his head. “It’s bookshelves.

Oh, right. Alina’s cheeks heat with mortification, but he prints a kiss on her forehead before sliding between her and Genya to help the delivery driver.

“Yeah, I’m swooning, too,” Genya whispers saucily, and Alina tries to keep herself from shamefacedly giggle-drooling as she watches Aleks hoist one of the boxes over his shoulder with a wink.


Six sweat-soaked hours later, everything from Alina’s now-empty storage space has been shifted from the box truck to the basement, her mattress has been installed in her new bedroom, and two new bookcases stand ready to be filled. 

Aleks regards her bedroom's lime-green walls dubiously. “How soon do you think you’ll paint over those?”

“I dunno.” Alina squints at a patch of sunlight that’s pouring across the wall. “I kinda like them.”

“Oh, christ,” Aleks sighs as he locks his arms around her shoulders, pulling her against his chest. “We’re going to be fucking in Shrek’s arsehole, aren’t we?”

Alina giggles and nuzzles into him, inhaling his clean, sharp smell as she wraps her good arm around his waist. “And when you put it like that, they’re definitely staying. At least for a few fucks.”

“Oh really, ” Aleks purrs. One of his hands settles at the nape of her neck, his fingers knotting in her hair. It’s almost long enough to properly tug on now, and she lifts her chin, turning her face up to his. “Is that an invitation?”

Sneakered footsteps crescendo in the hall, and Genya pops into the doorway. “Just running out to grab some stuff for the—” She stops, reading the moment. “Oh, you gave it to him? Congrats!”

“Um, not yet,” Alina manages through her sudden smile. “I was just gonna—”

“Oh!” Genya grimaces apologetically. “Well … I’ll take my time, shall I?”

Genya dentrassi-grins and bounds out of sight, leaving Alina alone with Aleks. “Give me what, Alina?” he hums seductively.

“The business,” Alina says, straight-faced for an entire second and a half before dissolving into nervous giggles.

Yeah, it’s time.

Aleks shakes his head in disbelief, tendrils of his dark hair falling over his glasses — and she ducks out of his arms, sauntering to where her backpack is propped against the wall. The wrapped rectangular box is right where she left it — and takes his hand, drawing him over to sit on the edge of her queen-sized mattress.

Alina holds it out, then twitches the small package back an inch as he moves to take it. Light flares off the iridescent wrapping paper, scattering rainbows across the room. Her room. 

“Before I give this to you…” She sucks in a breath, heart pounding hard enough to rattle her ribs. “I know you were ready for me to live with you at your place. And I’m so happy you want me to feel welcome there, even if I’m not ready for more big steps right now … you don’t know how much it means to me.”

“Of course,” Aleks murmurs, his dark brows knitting in a scowl as he searches her face. “You’re scaring me a little.”

“And I love you. Seriously much.”

His eyes narrow. “Now I’m definitely scared.”

“Don’t be.” The corner of Alina’s mouth tilts up as she proffers the package again, and her stomach feels like it’s in free-fall as he takes it.

Aleks opens the iridescent paper with deliberate care. The box that’s inside it is plain white, and he stops to throw her one more suspicious glance before opening it.

Then he sees what’s inside.

The worry on his face smooths out with understanding, then knits with a new strain of confusion. “But I…” Black fire flickers in his eyes as his gaze finds hers. “This is a key.”

“Well spotted,” Alina agrees, giggling and grinning.

“A key to what?”

He’s cute when he’s oblivious. “To here.”

Aleks full-on glowers . “Genya only gave you your key yesterday.”

“Mm-hmm.”

“And this box has been staring at me for a week.”

“I put a fake key in the box, then unwrapped it last night when you zonked out and swapped it with the real one,” Alina admits with a swell of devious pride. She points to the discarded paper. “See, if you just pop it out the end, you can slide it right out. Or I did.”

“But Genya—”

“—is fully aware and gives her blessing.” Her heart thumps painfully. “Aleks, even if I want some space to call my own, I want you to feel welcome in it, too.” She laces her fingers through his. “It’s kind of Persephone and Hades-ish if you think about it — if Persephone’s room had a geeky pin board and Hades owned a console. And Cerberus was a cat.”

The confusion on his face fades, leaving only understanding. “How long have you been planning this?”

Alina shrugs nonchalantly. “About three weeks.”

“I thought I was so clever putting yours in the drawer,” Aleks marvels, carefully setting the box and its precious contents aside on the bare plywood floor. “But this is bloody elaborate.”

“I almost gave it to you this morning, but I figured it might lead to some, uh, distraction.”

“Distraction, hmm?” Aleks croons, slipping an arm around her waist and pulling her across his lap. “I’m sure I have no idea what you mean, Miss Starkov.”

Use your words, Alina.

“I mean please rip my clothes off and defile the fuck out of me Mr. Morozova,” Alina whispers into the curve of his neck.

He cups her cheek, drawing her up to him, and his words warm her lips. “My pleasure, kitten.”

Suddenly the exhaustion is gone from Alina’s limbs, burned away by the smoldering, hungry crush of Aleks’s mouth against hers. She moans as his tongue parts the seam of her lips, probing her mouth as she scrabbles at his shirt with her good hand.

Aleks growls with need as he fondles her breasts and arse. “Clothes off. Now .”

Fuck yes.

It’s a matter of moments before Alina’s down to just her panties. She barely has time to haul her quilt over the bare mattress before Aleks drags her beneath him, his hands at her hips, stripping her of her last defense.

Oh ,” Alina groans as he yanks her beneath him. His fingers part her already-soaked folds, rubbing along the line of her crease and swirling around her clit. “Daddy, please—”

“I’m here, babygirl,” Aleks rumbles. “Let me take care of you.”

The blunt heat of his raw cock against Alina’s ready cunt makes her keen, the sound drawing out into a sigh as he penetrates her, feeding her every thick inch until he’s fully seated in her pussy. 

A blissful shiver racks both of them as his cockhead finds her cervix. She’s so full of him that her breaths shallow — and then he starts to move inside her, thrusting hard, pistoning into her in a hypnotic, primal rhythm that matches her own desire.

Home. It’s here, it’s now, it’s his house and hers. It’s Aleks caressing her body, kissing her, fucking her with desperate need, burning with that selfsame desire, loyalty, love.

“Alina,” Aleks groans, shuddering as he nears.

“Come with me, Sasha,” she whispers. Then they’re falling apart together, his heat pouring into Alina’s womb as her thoughts dissolve into rapture.

She’s lost. She’s found.

She’s home.