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And Miles to Go (Before I Wake)

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There’s a low, paint-chipped door in the corner of Alexei Mashkov’s living room in Providence.

His agent tells him that the door used to connect to the apartment next to his, a long time ago, when the structure had been one. The door leads to nowhere now, only a wall of bricks. Alexei has even seen the wall of bricks in person, when he requested the landlord open the door for fun. He’s always been curious, after all, and the old, rusted key that the agent picks out from the cabinets only added to that curiosity.

“You’ll get yourself into trouble one day, Lyosha,” his grandmother used to tell him. Alexei had been young, perhaps seven or eight, when she warned him. “Don’t ask so many questions, and try to be happy, or the spirits will see, and take you.” She had said, “Don’t go through strange doors, and don’t follow voices, especially if they sing to you.”

“What’s so bad about singing?” Alexei had demanded, in a petulant way only a seven-year-old can manage. “I sing.”

“Yes, love, but they sing to confuse you,” his grandmother had responded. “They sing of a life better than the one you have, so you want to come to them. You see? They want to trick you and steal you away.”

Of course, Alexei had thought her warning had been metaphorical, if not slightly cryptic. She’d been old then, and easily confused. If you take out the spirits part, the rest sound more or less logical. He figured that she doesn’t want him talking to strangers and end up kidnapped, so Alexei had merely nodded and promised her. No going in strange doors, no following the singing voice, not that there’d been any in his life. Until now.

The bricks are nothing special: the seams filled with cement, the corners dusty with cobwebs. It’s nothing out of the ordinary, but there’s a draft that only Alexei can feel because when he mentions it to the agent, she only blinks in confusion.

“Why not lock it?” Alexei asks, when the agent pockets the old key and closes the old, wooden door.

“Why should I?” the agent says, smiling. “The wall is bricked up. Not like there’s anything that can come out. Now, let’s go to the kitchen. The structure itself is a little old, almost 150 years, but it’s been recently remodeled. It’s got a beautiful granite counter top—”

Alexei loves the house. But doesn’t know why he feels uneasy about the door. When he gets the keys to the house, he finds the rusted key again and locks the door. 

“Nice digs,” Kent Parson says, when he comes over to visit. “The furniture is kind of meh, though. Yours?”

“Furniture old,” Alexei explains, tossing Kent a beer. “From people who live here before.”

“Free stuff,” Kent says appreciatively.  

Alexei’s been long in love with Kent, but he never says. He’s nursed the crush since he saw Kent from the draft, since he found Kent at a bar after the game where he picked Kent up from the scrum off the ice, nursing a Coke disguised as an alcoholic drink and pointedly not looking at Jack Zimmermann, who’d been dragged out to the same club by the other Falconer rookies. They’d talked for the whole night and ended up exchanging numbers. It’s almost a little tradition of theirs now, to visit each other’s place when they have a game against each other.

They criticize each other’s playing styles, which leads to Kent criticizing Alexei’s curtains, which leads to Alexei criticizing Kent’s cooking. Alexei makes dinner sometimes, and other times, Kent tries to make dinner for Alexei’s amusement, which often ends very poorly with no less than two triggered fire alarms. They chirp each other, but Kent’s surprisingly patient, and he’s never mean about Alexei not understanding a pop culture reference or make fun of his accent. Sometimes Kent will give a little hip-check as he says, “You’re in my way,” while he maneuvers around Alexei’s kitchen like it’s their kitchen. Other times, Alexei thinks Kent is standing a little closer to him than usual, and he hopes that it’s not just his imagination, but then he blinks, and Kent is already moving away to pour himself another glass as he sings some pop song Alexei can’t name.  

It always hurts when Kent goes back to his hotel, even though Alexei’s offered the guest room many times. He falls asleep at night in a bedroom that’s too big for him, in a bed that starts to feel increasingly large, and a few times during the night, when he is by himself, he swears he hears Kent’s voice, humming a little tune from the living room. But every time he gets up to check, the humming stops, and he never finds anyone.

Not that he expects to.

Once, when Kent visits again, he brings chocolates from Vegas and even Kit Purrson herself, who falls in love with Alexei even though Kent warns that she likes to scratch. He mentions the humming, but that night, as Alexei puts on a movie for the two of them, he doesn’t hear singing at all.

“Maybe it’s the neighbors from the other side,” Kent says.

“I’m not have neighbors on other side,” Alexei says. “The other apartment empty right now.”  

Kent falls asleep during the movie on Alexei’s couch, and Alexei has never wanted to smooth out the cowlick on Kent’s sleeping face more. He’s breathtakingly beautiful, amazing at hockey, kind, and gentle when he thinks no one can see him. Alexei has never been more in love or more heartbroken, because it’d take a miracle for someone like Kent to fall in love with someone like Alexei, who is clumsy and loud and always has too much heart to give to people who don’t always want it.

When Kent goes home, Alexei dreams of a voice singing to him, and of walking towards the low door in his living room and unlocking it. He doesn’t think much of it, but he does think it strange that he keeps having the same dream, again and again.

“I always have recurring dreams,” Snowy tells him at the breakfast nook. “Like that one time I got checked by Poots during practice? And he farted on me? I dreamed about that shit for a week.”

“Shut the fuck up, it was an accident,” Poots says. “I didn’t check you, I lost my footing.”

A month later, Kent Skypes him from Vegas, holding his fluffy cat and promising to come back the next week to visit for Alexei’s birthday, and Alexei has never missed anyone so tremendously, maybe besides his mother when he first left Russia at age 18, fresh-faced and speaking not a word of English.

“Already booked my flight. I’ll be visiting my mom so I’m flying in from New York,” Kent’s static-ruptured voice says, courtesy of Alexei’s shitty Wi-Fi. “You really sure it’s okay I stay at your place?”

“Of course, no trouble.”

“I will literally be at your door at 6 in the morning with Kit. You better be awake. I expect breakfast.”

“Anything for the Great Kent Parson,” Alexei says, wishing Kent is closer and not several states away.

“Don’t call me that,” Kent laughs, then ducks his face. 

On the third day after he first heard the noise, the humming gets more insistent, like a bee buzzing around his head, and Alexei throws off his covers in irritation to get up and take a couple of Advil at 3 in the morning. But when he steps into the kitchen, he pauses in confusion. The bricked up door in the living room, the one that leads to nowhere, is now slightly open. The key is stuck in the lock, and Alexei pulls it off and pockets it.  He doesn’t remember unlocking it before he went to sleep that night.

He’s about to shut the door when he realizes that the brick wall is just simply…gone. Disappeared, like it’d never been there. There is a short, dark hallway instead of a wall of cement, and the singing, now a little clearer, is obviously coming further down from the hallway. He grabs a hockey stick (call him clichéd, but it’d been the closest thing), and steps into the dark. 

The hallway is short and soon leads out to a clearing: he’s expecting an empty apartment, with the same layout as his own, because supposedly that’s what is on the other side. However, when he comes out of the hallway, he finds himself back in his own apartment, with the same furniture and even the same hockey bag slung on the armchair nearby. He hadn’t left at all. A few feet away shines a light from the kitchen, the humming now more pronounced than ever.

Alexei walks to his kitchen, warm and bright with butter-yellow light, clutching his hockey stick, and sees—

Kent Parson.

“Kenny?” he says cautiously, almost in shock.

Kent looks up, his face flushed in delight. He looks absolutely gorgeous, Alexei thinks. He has on a Falconer’s t-shirt and black boxers, but nothing else. His hair is mussed and tousled with, almost like someone had run their hands through it. He’s eating cereal from a mouse mug, with little ceramic ears sticking out from the rim.

“Hi, babe,” Kent says, sounding exactly just like the Kent he’d spoken to on the webcam not two hours ago. “Did I wake you?”

“Who are you?” Alexei says.

Kent only laughs, and it’s so eerily similar to the laugh Alexei heard a month ago, when he spilled soup on his shirt, and Kent had giggled, rolling backwards on the couch.

“Your boyfriend, I hope,” Kent says, extending a hand as he puts down his mug.

Alexei takes it, because he hasn’t had a dream this good in years. “You not my boyfriend. I’m not have boyfriend.”

“That’s sad,” Kent says into Alexei’s neck. His fingers dance on Alexei’s nape as he slots his body against Alexei’s. However, where there should be the thumping of a heartbeat, there was none. “I was hoping to kiss my boyfriend.”

What harm would it do to kiss a figure in his daydreams? Alexei bends down and kisses Kent, who makes a satisfying chuckle low in his throat before nipping at Alexei’s lips, just as Alexei likes, as if he’d done it a million times before.

“Come on,” Kent says, as he pulls away. “Let’s watch a movie. You promised.”

Kent snuggles against Alexei and kisses him no less than fifteen times during the movie, when they settle in the living room that isn’t Alexei’s but looks practically identical, down to the coffee stain on the rug that Alexei has never been able to wash out. The television may as well have been playing static, because all he could focus on is Kent’s slightly cold fingers intertwined with his. He dozes off with Kent’s head on his shoulder and his arm around Kent’s body. He doesn’t remember exactly when, but he thinks Kent may have started humming to him halfway through.

When Alexei wakes up again, he’s in his own bed, in his real apartment, alone. The first thing he does in the morning is throw the door in the living room open again, but he is greeted by the old brick wall.

He spends a good part of the morning looking at the door before going on his run.

That night, Alexei hears singing again, when the glow from his digital alarm clock proclaims it to be 3 AM on the dot. He slips out of bed and towards the living room door, where it is, once again, slightly open, as if beckoning him to come forth.

“I’m making zharkoye,” Kent tells him, when Alexei finds him in the Other Kitchen again. He’s barefoot and peeling potatoes over the sink. Whatever is simmering on the stove smells incredible. “I thought I’d try my hand at it.”

“You not burn down kitchen,” Alexei says, unable to keep down a short, surprised honk of laughter. “Kent Parson make edible food? You must be–magic? What is word? Witch?”

Kent only smiles. If Alexei had been paying attention, he might have noticed that Kent’s face glimmered for half a second, revealing something warped and gnarled on the bottom, or that Kent’s fingers sometimes seem too long to be human. But Kent waves his hands, silently motioning for him to come closer, and Alexei forgets that he’d ever seen something other than Kent’s blond, messy locks and the splatter of freckles across his nose that Alexei wanted to kiss.

“I know how much you miss home,” Kent says, in perfect Russian, Alexei realizes with a jolt. “So I thought I could make something you like. Do you like it?”

“I love it,” Alexei says into Kent’s shoulder. He doesn’t ask how Kent knows Russian, for fear of ruining the dream. “Better not let Kit near it, or the stew will be gone by the time you look again.” Kent gives him an empty stare, so Alexei elaborates, “You know? Kit? Your cat? You named her after yourself.”

“Cats are vermin,” Kent says blankly, turning his attention to the stove and stirring the stew with a wooden spoon. “I don’t allow vermin in my home.”

(”They don’t like cats?” Alexei, age eight, asks his grandmother as she puts potatoes in the stew. He’s grown to love asking his grandmother about the things in the dark, the ones she warns that sings and steals. “Why not?”

“So many questions,” his grandmother complains, smoothing out Alexei’s hair. “Because cats can walk both worlds and come back in one piece, and they cannot.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because one took my sister, a long time ago, when we were both babies,” she says. “She come back one more time to me, and she tell me, ‘Masha, our cat speaks in the Other World! But the woman there, our Other Mother, she doesn’t like cats. The cat told me that it’s because she can only stay in her world, and cats can go as they please. I’m going back this afternoon.’ I didn’t believe her, I thought she was playing pretend. And then after that, I never saw her again.”

“Mama said she ran away,” Alexei says. 

“No. She was stolen. I know this,” she says, and holds up a spoon full of meat and potatoes. “Now, taste this for me.”)

Before Alexei can protest, Kent lifts the spoon. “Here, taste.”

It tastes exactly like how his grandmother makes, maybe almost better, and he tells Kent this. Kent’s face reddens, his freckles standing out more prominently against his cheekbones like a thousand stars, so much that Alexei just has to press his lips against them. 

This Kent’s skin is always so cold, Alexei thinks. He wonders if the real Kent feels the same way. 

It’s probably lucid dreaming, Alexei concludes. There’s no other plausible explanation. He doesn’t exactly recall the end of each episode with the Other Kent, only that it fades, like a movie, and that each morning, he somehow ends up in his own bed by himself. He finds himself going back, though, his legs moving without him realizing, almost like he’s floating. Always at 3 AM, and always following the humming. Every day is better than the last. This Kent is loving, soft, cooks amazing food, and tells little, silly anecdotes in Alexei’s language against his skin that makes Alexei’s heart race and hurt at the same time.

But nonetheless, he misses the real Kent, misses the savage, witty chirps and his obsession with his cat, even misses Kent’s lack of culinary expertise. There is something off about this Kent, not just with the endearments or the cooking, that Alexei just can’t place his finger on it; the real Kent would never be caught dead saying things like “dear heart” or “darling” to Alexei, in Russian or otherwise. The Other Kent feels kind of artificial, for lack of a better word. Graceful and sweet, every move he makes is measured and precise, almost like he’s moving mechanically. The real Kent’s coming in a week or so, Alexei knows, so for now, he thinks it won’t hurt if he indulged in his own subconscious a little more. It isn’t real, anyways.  

The next time he goes back to the Other Kent, it’s snowing outside, like it’d been the night before in the real world. But instead of the ice-glazed Providence sidewalk that Alexei’s expecting, he sees a wooded, snowy path and, a little ways ahead, a frozen pond exactly like the one he had outside his childhood home. Overhead, a silver moon glints, brighter than Alexei thinks the moon should shine. 

“This—” His mouth drops. “This is—”

“Your favorite place to skate, I know. I made it for you,” Kent says, wrapping a thick, woolen scarf around Alexei’s neck as he slips flawlessly into Russian. “Is it alright?”

“Alright?” Alexei exclaims. “This is incredible. It’s perfect. I haven’t been home in—” He trails off. “—in a long time.” He’s not even sure if the pond or the woods are still there; they’d been sold to a land developer who’d planned to clear the area to build more homes. 

Kent kisses his jaw and says gently, “Come on, bring your skates. I’ve been dying to go outside.”

“You haven’t gone outside in a while?” Alexei asks.

“Of course not, I was waiting for you,” Kent replies, pulling Alexei down the stairs and onto the powdered-white path. “Now, tell me about your day.”

It’s almost liberating to speak to Kent in Russian. He can tell the jokes that normally wouldn’t come out right in English, and his stories come out quicker and easier. Kent laughs at all the right places and throws back a few quips of his own. When they get on the ice, however, Kent stumbles a little and ends up having to hold on to Alexei’s arm for a large portion of the time.

“Haven’t been practicing lately, huh?” Alexei chirps.

“It’s been a little while,” Kent admits.

“And how long is ‘a little while,’ Captain Parson?”

“Years,” Kent laughs hollowly, like he’s not even responding to Alexei anymore. He lays a hand on Alexei’s chest, letting his fingers tap against the material of his shirt absently. “Decades. Maybe a hundred years, who knows?”

There’s an unfamiliar prick worrying at the base of Alexei’s spine, almost giving him a sensation that something is wrong.

“You’re barely thirty, kitten,” Alexei says slowly.

Kent lets out a heavy sigh, almost like he’s trying to control his annoyance, but when he looks back at Alexei, he’s grinning, “It’s a joke, Alyosha. Or maybe I’m pretending to be shit so I have an excuse to touch you.”

“It’s a good excuse,” Alexei agrees, as he meets Kent halfway in a lip-numbing kiss.  

“Do you have to go back tonight?” Kent asks. “Can’t you stay?”

“I have practice,” Alexei says. “But I’ll come back to you soon.”

“I know you will,” Kent murmurs, then musters up a winning smile. “ Let’s go back inside. I’m starving.”

There’s a marvelous spread of meatballs, potatoes, a basket of dinner rolls, soup, and a pitcher full of something red and floating with berries waiting for them on the dinner table. If Alexei hadn’t been so busy eating, he’d have noticed that Kent hardly touches his own plate. He looks on at Alexei, fills his cup when it grows empty, and drums his fingers gently against the table. 

“I’m so glad you like it here,” Kent says, still smiling that same, unwavering smile. 

The Falcs have a road trip (which Alexei remembers at the last moment) that lasts four days, and strangely, Alexei doesn’t dream of the Other Kent at all during that time. On the last day, as their plane touches down in Providence, he hears Snowy say, “Dude, what happened to your face? Your eye bags are like, insane. Have you been getting enough sleep?”

“Yes,” Alexei says tersely, and tries to conjure up the blini that the Other Kent had made. It seems like ages away when Kent had fed him while they cuddled on the couch, staring at Alexei in fixed adoration, while resting his free hand over Alexei’s heart. He also had told a story, Alexei thinks, maybe about Jeff or Jack or someone starting with a J, he can’t remember. Or maybe it’d been–

“Okay, but you’re looking pretty shitty,” Snowy comments bluntly. “I think Marty’s noticing. He’s gonna want to ask—”

“I’m fine,” Alexei barks out, a lot harsher than he’d intended. He blinks. “Oh. Oh, I’m sorry, Snowy. Not mean to yell.”

Snowy doesn’t seem hurt, but he doesn’t look convinced. “You call me if you need anything, okay? We still on for that run tomorrow? 6 AM, right? Gotta get into that Zimmermann work ethic.”

Alexei nods, but he doesn’t call, either. 

That night, he bolts right up in bed at 5:20 AM as the usual humming in his ear grows to an ungodly shriek. He bolts up in bed to turn off his alarm, cursing as he pulls a jacket on. Snowy will be here in less than an hour, and he’s barely ready. When he hops to the kitchen for a glass of water, the living room door catches his eye. It’s ajar, and the brick wall doesn’t seem to be there.

But he’s never been able to enter the doorway past 3 AM. He’s never been able to go through the door when he’s awake. But as of now, he can still hear Kent’s humming, the same one that he always hears in his dreams.

“Kenny?,” Alexei calls warily. “Are you there?”

“Alyosha?” the voice behind the door responds. “Alyosha, is that you?”

He slams his cup down and marches in hurriedly. The Other Kent’s in the living room, lounging on a pile of worn pillows and flipping through a book. He has little reading glasses on, and he brightens when he sees Alexei.

“Alyosha,” he says. “I’ve waited so long for you. Where were you?”

His heart feels like it’s about to beat out of his chest. “You’re not a dream,” Alexei says. “You’re real.”

“Of course I’m real,” he says, almost like he’s irritated. Then he stretches out his arms towards Alexei like he’s waiting for a kiss hello.

To his shock, Alexei feels his own feet moving forward until he’s crouching by Kent’s side and leaning closer. Kent’s lips feel a little frigid today, sort of like kissing a dead thing.  

“Kent…” Alexei glances behind him, at the hallway he’d come from. “I have something to do today.”

Kent furrows his brows into an almost hurt expression. “I wish you didn’t have to go back.”

“You weren’t there,” Alexei accuses, his hands feeling numb. “When I went to sleep. During the roadie.”

“You weren’t home,” Kent says simply, taking Alexei’s palms in his. They’ve always been cold, but they also feel kind of waxy today, like the hands of a mannequin, and Alexei doesn’t know why. “I want you to stay so bad, baby. Don’t you want to stay?”

“Yes,” Alexei answers earnestly, like he’s in a trance. “I do want to stay with you. Always.”

Kent’s eyes are dark, nearly black in the dim light. “I want that, too, so much.”

Something stings him in the back of his neck, and Alexei shakes his head, disoriented for a second.

“But…you’re not Kent,” he says slowly. “Kent would never—” He imagines the real Kent Parson, his infuriatingly headstrong Kent, who calls Alexei out when he messes up the phrase “booty call” with “butt dial,” and belts out Britney in Alexei’s kitchen like he’s trying to win an award for the world’s worst singer. The words jumble in his mind, refusing to leave his mouth without coming out in an incoherent garble. “You’re not my real Kent.”

“But I can be,” Kent says, his voice like music. He does not let go of Alexei’s hand.

Something isn’t right, not tonight. “I should go.”

“No, no,” Kent says softly, his grip on Alexei’s wrist relentless. “Stay. You just have to do one little thing.”

And Alexei, to his horror, hears his own voice intone, “Whatever you need, kitten.”

“I need your heart,” Kent says, not looking away for a moment.


Kent cocks his head to one side, and pokes a bony finger at Alexei’s chest.

“It won’t hurt,” Kent promises, his teeth flashing. They were sharp and angular, like a shark's. Had they been that sharp before? “Everyone says it feels like nothing.”

“I—I don’t—” There’s a part of him that’s screaming at Alexei to get out, hurry, leave, but his mind and legs feel like they’ve turned into jelly, and he finds that he can’t look away from Kent. “Who are you?”

Kent looks up from his lashes, his pale face turning paler, longer, less like Kent and more like a horrible parody of a thing pretending to be Kent. His voice turns into sandpaper, rough, the syllables falling off his lips like stones.

“Your heart is so heavy, Alyosha, I’ve seen it,” the thing says, blinking its dark, marble eyes. It—no, she—cocks her head to one side, licking her lips with a black tongue, like the demons his grandmother had told him in her stories, the one with paper-white skin and gaunt faces who steal souls. “You love a boy who doesn’t love you back, I know this. Doesn’t it hurt so much? Being in a place where no one speaks your language, where your friends don’t understand you?”

“I’m not—it’s not—”

His grandmother had told him to run, and Alexei wants to, but the demon continues with her sickly sweet voice, running her fingers down Alexei’s face to his chest like the fluttering of a dying moth, and he finds himself petrified. “I can make it feel better, my sweet. You can stay with me, and I will love you forever. Wouldn’t that be nice, Alyosha? To be loved, to be cared for? I can make you so happy, happy every day.”

And despite everything, Alexei starts to feel sleepier and sleepier, and the whispers, like the rustling of dead leaves, almost sounds like his Kent, if he doesn’t focus too much on it. The demon’s fingers seem to be turning into needles, into knives. She draws a circle on Alexei’s chest and, with a little bit of pressure, pushes in with a sickening plop, then draws something out in a clenched fist that makes Alexei lose his breath momentarily.

When she pulls her hand back out, she’s holding a small, glass marble.

“Don’t you feel so much lighter, Alyosha?” she whispers then shoves the sphere into her own chest, where it opens and swallows the marble. “Now you can stay with me forev—”

“Tater? Alexei, you home?”

“Tater, I’m here with Parson. He even brought his frickin’ cat for some reason. Also, sorry ‘bout using the spare key, you were taking forever to answer the door. I put it back under the mat. Where the—what the…what’s with this door?”

“That’s bricked up, there shouldn’t…oh my God, what the fuck?”

It’s Kent’s voice, Alexei registers vaguely. Sure, sharp, and strong, and getting closer, along the clatter of two separate footsteps on squeaky, ancient floorboards. Then, shocked and frightened, a scream follows.

“Alexei! What the fuck—

The demon steps away from Alexei, where he slides off and falls limply like a rag doll onto the wooden floor. She cracks her neck as she twists it from one side.

“Leave,” she says, the voices of a thousand morphing into one, no longer sounding remotely human. “You are too late, Kent Parson.”

Alexei can see, from the corner of his eyes, a fuzzy, blurry image of a wide-eyed Kent, the real Kent, with his hair unkempt and sticking up, and Snowy scrambling in the back near the open doorway.

“Kent,” Alexei rasps out. “Go. Go away.”

“Fuck no,” Kent says, not taking his eyes off the demon.

The demon cracks a smile, then steps away graciously, as if imploring Kent to try.

“Move his body out of my realm, and his bones will burn to ash,” she says. The strands of her hair, now no longer blond, move behind her slowly as if controlled by a puppeteer. “He is bound to me.”

Kent hesitates, but the demon only smiles unpleasantly.

“Go to him, Kent Parson. I will not hurt you,” she promises, but she eyes Kent with a hungry stare. “Go say a goodbye.” 

Kent’s face hardens. He then dashes over to where Alexei collapsed and falls to his knees on the old floorboards. He feels Alexei’s chest for a heartbeat, finds none, then stares at Alexei’s glassy eyes in mortification. His cheeks are pink from the cold, his eyes wild.

“No, no—Alexei, God, please—”

“Kent,” Alexei manages, and hears Kent cry out in relief.

“What the fuck happened? What the fuck is that thing?” he demands. Alexei almost wants to laugh, if his lungs didn’t feel like they’ve been burnt; his Kent has always been stubborn. “What did you do?”

“He is so lonely, don’t you know? All because of you,” the demon says, and Kent holds in his breath when she twists her neck again, changing into Kent’s countenance for a split moment, before the blood drains out of her face and leaves behind a paper-white, cracked visage yet again. “He comes to me, so sad, and I sing to him, and feed him, and speak in his tongue, and love him. I say to him, boy in Vegas cannot love you, but I can look like him, and I can love you. And he says yes, and gives me his soul.”

“You’re lying,” Kent yells at her, always so angry, even when faced with danger. His fingers are threaded in Alexei’s hair, desperate. “He’d never say that.”

Alexei thinks he sees Snowy in the far corner, half-hidden in the shadows and huddled with a white mass of fur in his arms. He doesn’t know if he’s hallucinating or not.

The demon’s smile falls into a grotesque frown. “I never lie, Kent Parson.”

(“Her kind loves games and tricks,” Alexei’s grandmother says to Alexei, when he pressed for more information about the ‘demon.’ “The stories always say to strike a bargain with her, or trick her.”

“What kind of thing is that?” a young Alexei asks, burrowed in his blankets. His cat, a fat, old matted thing, slinks up to his head and makes himself comfortable on the pillow. “A goddess?”

“No, no,” his grandmother assures. “Not human, of course. But her power can only extend so far.”

“So if I kick her face, then I win?”

His grandmother smiles. “Perhaps, Lyosha. I don’t know. I’ve never met one. Now, time to sleep.”)

“She lie,” Alexei gasps out. It hurts to speak; his throat feels like it’s been filled with smoke. He doesn’t exactly know where he’s going with this; he just knows her has to get her to produce what she’s taken, then he can think of the next step. He has to buy time, get Kent and Snowy out first. “She not have soul. I not give.”

The demon laughs, and it truly is a terrible noise, echoing off the walls and rattling in his bones. She grins at Kent, her overlapping teeth shiny and her tongue pitch-black and pointed. She’d been near the coffee table, a good distance away from Kent and Alexei, but she vanishes for half a second, and then suddenly she’s crouching behind Kent, her dark hair sweeping against Kent’s shoulder.

“He will stay with me until his flesh rots and his skin hangs off his frame. Forever and ever. And if you stay longer, Kent Parson,” she declares with glee, reappearing next to the coffee table again. “I will take you as well.”

“Fuck you,” Kent spits at her, but his lips tremble, almost like he’s close to tears.

“Prove it,” Alexei rasps to the demon. “You lie. I’m not believe.”

LIE,” the demon shrieks, like the shattering of glass from a thousand needles. “I never lie. Humans lie, and cheat, and steal.

“Show me,” Alexei says, with one last breath he musters up. “Show me you have my soul, and I stay with you.” He swallows thickly, squeezing Kent’s hand one last time. “Forever.”

Alexei feels Kent hovering over his body, trying to half-drag him away from the being while shielding him as much as he can. The demon seems to consider this, then nods as she reaches into her own chest. Her hand disappearing into her body like sinking into slime, and she pulls out a handful of something grey that look like broken eggshells. When she shakes the pile loose, the orange, glowing marble appears from the ashes.

She cackles triumphantly, with a hundred teeth, sharp as blades. “See? Now, you’re going to stay with m—”

Something growls out a high-pitched, threatening noise from the hallway, and suddenly the demon falls backwards, letting out an awful, piercing scream as Kit Purrson, in all her fury, comes launching through the air out of nowhere with her claws outstretched. Kit lands on her face and latches on, swiping viciously at the demon’s face as she produces a terrifying yowl of her own. The thing–the Other Kent–starts to bleed a black goo down the cuts, and she loses her grasp on the orange marble to cup her face in pain and swat at the cat. Her skin bubbles at the seams where she’d been swiped, almost like she’d been burned.

Kent scrambles for the marble and quickly tucks it into Alexei’s shirt pocket. He screams out, “Snowy, help me lift him!”

Another set of hands, Snowy’s, Alexei thinks, reaches under his arms and hauls him up, half-dragging him to the open door where they’d barged in. Kit has already jumped off what used to be the Other Kent, shooting towards the exit like a dart. The world is graying out, the concrete edges of the furniture flying apart and melting into the crude lines of a sketch.

“Why the fuck did you throw my cat?” Kent is saying, sounding hysterical. “Where the hell is Kit?”

“It was the only thing I had on hand! And your cat already ran ahead,” Snowy screams back. “We’ll talk about this later, help me get him through the door—” He turns his head, and he nearly trips over his own feet. “Holy fuck, she’s crawling towards us, her face is melted but she’s following us, oh God, I’m gonna fucking puke—”

“Shut up, shut up!” Kent yells back. “Don’t fucking look!”

Don’t leave me,” the being wails from behind, alternating between a twisted version of Kent’s voice and a deep, inhuman roar. “Alyosha—don’t leave me here—I love you so much, don’t go—”

They hurtle through the door, back into Alexei’s real apartment, and land in a heap. Snowy quickly scrambles to his knees and pushes the door closed. It shuts with a click, but before Snowy lets go of the knob, behind the door comes a muffled, furious shriek, and he throws his back against the door like he’s straining to push against an invisible force. 

“Guys, she’s trying to come through!” Snowy screams. His expression looks like a hundred pucks decided to become sentient and come for him all at once. “What the fuck do I do?” 

“Key,” Alexei says hoarsely. “In pocket.”

Kent gets the hint and shoves his hand in Alexei’s pajama pockets, rummaging for the key and tossing it at Snowy. He catches it and locks the door with a heavy clunk in the process. The door gives a loud thump from the other side—once, twice, then nothing at all.

“Are you okay? Did your bones disintegrate or whatever?” Kent asks frantically, patting at Alexei’s chest, then lets out a huge sigh when he feels the thump-thump of a steady heartbeat. He sticks a finger into Alexei’s front pocket and pulls out a broken, wispy grey shell. “Oh my God. Oh my fucking God. It was real. What the fuck.”

Snowy is spread out flat on the ground, panting heavily like he’s just run a marathon. He rolls like a log about four feet away from the door, just for good measure.

“Dude,” he says to Alexei. “No offense, I know you just bought the place, but I really think you should move. Or get an exorcism, at least.”

“You told me that door was bricked up,” Kent accuses.

“Landlord not tell me about soul-eating demon,” Alexei coughs out. Kit pads over to his head and sits down, cocking her head before she leans down to lick once at Alexei’s forehead. “Sorry.”

“You saw another version of me in there,” Kent cries out, his lips quivering. Oh, he’s crying, Alexei notices. The Great Kent Parson is crying, right on Alexei’s floor, over Alexei. “You didn’t think something was fucking off?

“I think I’m have good dream,” Alexei says, because there’s no point in hiding. He’s just had his soul practically dug out of his body, and he hadn’t even known that that is something he had to be concerned about. “I’m come home, tired, go to sleep, and every night I dream I have boyfriend who love me. My fault. I’m stupid, keep going back.”

“You didn’t have to sell your fucking soul for a boyfriend,” Kent hiccups, grabbing Alexei’s hand. They were warm, he notices.

“No,” Alexei agrees. “I’m sell soul for you.” He groans, his neck stiff as he tries to sit up. “Actually, she just take. I really not say yes to her have my soul.”

Kent gapes, but no sound comes out of his mouth for a fraction of a second. “You could just ask me next time.”

“Ask you…for soul?”

“On a date, asshole.”

“Oh.” Alexei says. Then he reaches for Kent’s face with both hands and kisses him; Kent kisses back, and it’s nothing like the kisses he’s had the past week. Kent’s lips are solid and real beneath his, and Alexei can feel the quick thump of his anxious heart through his thumb resting on Kent’s pulse.

“We’re going to find you a new apartment,” Kent says, leaning in to kiss Alexei again, and again, like he’s breathing Alexei in. “I’m coming with you.”

Alexei had no objections to that.  

(“Oh, man, that demon shit? Did you guys see her face? Ugh. That’s going to be my nightmare fuel for weeks,” Snowy says, rubbing his eyes as he finally sits up. “I—oh, shit, guys, are you making out? Wow, awkward. I risked my life saving you, too, Tater. Fucking ungrateful.”)