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Open Your Eyes

Chapter Text

The Girl and the Boy had once dreamed of grand adventures. Adventures that had revolved around the stories Ana Kuya had told them. Of magical white deer that appeared at twilight and granted wishes to whoever caught them. Of mermaids who's voices summoned storms to wreck ships. Of moonlit forests where dark things lurked, and witches cooked magical feasts for those willing to pay the price. Of brave heros who found happy endings to their tales.

Reality, they found, was different now that they had finished their adventures. As were their dreams. The boy dreamed of a happy, peaceful home, where his beautiful wife's eyes weren't sad. Where he could hunt in the forest and bring home as much as he once had, to a happy son, and a wife who's fingers never stretched to touch the light that no longer answered her call.

The girl's dreams were different. Of gleaming golden domes and palaces where beautiful people called fire, wind, water, darkness, and light from their fingertips. Of workshops filled with purple clad figures bent over their tools, and warriors that could stop a heart with a flick of their fingers. She dreamed of a white stag that stepped through the twilight, of the pale prince who felled it with a black arrow, placed its antlers around her throat and called her power forth in a blaze of bright sunlight. 

She dreamed of a too-clever fox that laughed and slipped them both from the Darklings clutches. A fox that captained a flying ship across the skies and hunted monsters from the protection of her light. Who turned to a handsome prince and whisked her away back to the court of a king she no longer wished to serve. A prince who smirked and promised to kiss her one day, when she was thinking of him, for he knew her heart belonged to another still. A prince who disappeared into the night and promised to return.

A prince who, against all odds survived, and found her again. Who flew her and her friends to a mountain stronghold and proved himself a good king time and again. Who brushed his lips against hers and held her hand through the night; whispering reassurences for her ears alone as the stars fell around them, as if the very heavens mourned for her loss. Who handed her an emerald ring and said that he would wait, wouldn't demand an answer from her, not yet.

A prince who became a king, a king of scars. Who asked her once more to stay, and let her go when she needed him to. Who had stared at the scars on his fingers that they both somehow knew would never heal. Asked in a small voice that didn't seem to fit the man she knew, if they had been friends. 

It was hard to return to those dreams, return to an orphanage far away from the friends that made her forget her loss. Hard to return from the laughing prince who accepted her for who she was, to the tired hunter who scolded and held her hands till they no longer twitched toward the sunbeams. Most of all it was hard to return to the gaping hole where her power had once been. 

When she woke from those dreams she shivered and curled her fingers toward the little window that was the only source of sunlight, flinching as the shadows leapt and danced on the walls. Then she would curl into herself till her husband woke and and reached to find her missing form. 

Chapter Text

Water and Light

This is us

History falling down

Hope rising up

We're the here and now

All that came before

Cannot go back to sleep

We're not children anymore

Woah, oh, woah, oh

Open your eyes!


 

 

It wasn't that Alina didn't love her life. Well that wasn't true. She loved Mal, and Misha, and Keramzin, and all the children at the orphanage they ran, not to mention the visits from their friends from Os Alta. The problem was in what was missing.

She missed the Little Palace. Genya's gossip and easy friendship, the steel in her eyes as she faced down the old King. David's genius in a workshop and cluelessness everywhere else. Zoya's haughty smile, the way she flipped her glossy raven hair and laughed mockingly. Harshaw and his fire, the little tabby cat at his side. Tamar and Tolya, their blades and tattoos, their wide, wild Heartrender grins. Nadia and Adrik, loyal to the last.

Nikolai's- well... a lot of things about Nikolai. The way he attacked a problem. The way he brought hope with him wherever he went. The way he was always changing, always revealing secrets as he went along, getting grander and more mysterious each time. The way he smirked at her when she was exasperated at him and made her forget whatever it was she was mad at him about. The way he made her relax and smile, could always draw out a grin or a laugh even in her darkest moments.

Most of all, Alina Starkov Oretsev missed her powers. She slipped out of bed, her feet silent on the thin carpet as she padded over to the wardrobe. Not for the first time the white-haired girl's fingers found the folds of the thick blue kefta. Tears brimmed in her eyes as they fell on the note pinned to the bright cloth. You will always be one of us.

As she fingered the blue core-cloth, Alina couldn't help but feel the emptiness inside her which had once held the sun. The wardrobe door closed with a creak, and she turned as she heard a soft rustle from the bed. "Alina?" Mal's voice was sleepy and soft.

She couldn't look at him. She closed her eyes, hands balling into fists with the effort of not reaching toward the light. Her ears caught the creak of the bed as he rolled off of it, his soft footfalls as he stepped towards her. Alina stiffened as she felt his arms reach out to enfold her, taking her wrists between his fingers and pulling them toward him.

"Alina? Are you okay, what's wrong?" She shook her head, burying her face in his shoulder, she couldn't tell him. He sighed softly, pulling her slender body against his. "We could board up that window." Alina shook her head quietly, she needed the light now that she could not call it to her, she needed it to chase away the shadows that loomed darker every day.

It wasn't til later that day that she came to the conclusion. Painting always helped to clear her head and today was no different. She was just finishing a beautiful, intricate mural of a palace that looked suspiciously like Os Alta when the idea hit her. It was stupid, it was dangerous, and it was exactly what she needed.

"I'm going to Os Alta." Was the first thing Mal heard when he returned home from hunting in the woods that day.

"What?"

"I'm going to go visit our friends in Os Alta."

"And what about me?"

"I... I thought you'd come with me, and Misha too."

"No. I'm not going back there! Damn it all, Alina, you said you'd be happy here! To stay here with me!"

"I love you! But I'm not happy! I can't be, not anymore... I need to go to the Little Palace, to see everyone again."

"Is it him? Cause if it is-"

"Nikolai? No! Mal, I chose you! I married You!"

"Yeah, and you aren't happy with me, is that it? He won't want you now! You aren't the Sun Summoner anymore! Don't you get it? You're not useful to him and he won't want you! I should have known, all the mornings I wake up and your not next to me, all the paintings of palaces and suns and Amplifiers and foxes, and eagles, and damn ships! I should have seen the signs, they were all there. I should have known Sankta Alina was far to special and important for me."

He laughed bitterly as Alina shook before him, tears streaming from her brown eyes. "Fine, go, go to your precious prince and your palace, you'll come crawling back, you'll see!"

He barged past Alina, leaving the girl standing outside, her body wracked with sobs, her eyes red and wet with tears. Alina didn't see him again that day, as she packed her bags for two instead of three (for she was bringing Misha along, if only to remind him of his old life). She didn't see Mal that night either, though she stayed up late till the fire burned low and the candle was a melted stub.

He was their as they left however, wearing the same clothes as the day before, his breath smelling of kvas as she hugged him goodbye. Then she followed Misha into the plain carriage and watched through the small window as Keramzin and Mail faded into the distance. Perhaps it was better this way she reflected, Mal would have been as out of place at court as he had been when she was a living saint and he only her guard.. As their little carriage bumped along the winding road toward the capital Alina looked forward to tomorrow with something that felt suspiciously like hope.

Chapter Text

We can fight the dark

this is who we are

theres a new light coming

finally had enough

finally waking up

to who we are becoming open your eyes!


 

As the small carriage bumps along the road toward Os Alta, Alina rests her head against the window and sleeps. She dreams of an ancient boy with quartz grey eyes and a bitter, knowing smile.

He will never be your equal. He will never understand you Alina. It has been many years since she has heard that voice, but now it comes back to her as clearly as if he were whispering the words into her ear.

Even in her sleep Alina shivers slightly at the sound. Not with fear or hatred, but something else. Longing? Guilt? Shame that some part of her misses him even after all that he did? But her dreaming mind does not rest long on the Darkling.

Instead it comes to rest on another memory, of another boy, on another night. A boy with golden hair and sparkling hazel eyes who grins and leads her to a quiet spot on the mountaintop surrounded by falling stars. Who brushes his lips against her own and holds her hand through the night till the sun rose again and she had to go back to being Sankta Alina, and he the golden prince.

The white-haired girl sighed as she woke, smiling slightly to reassure Misha that she was fine. Alina shifted, pulling her shawl more tightly around her slender shoulders. It would be another two days till they arrived in Os Alta, stopping for the night of course. Children always seem to understand when their parent needs them, and Misha was no different, he wriggled over the seat and snuggled into Alina.

She wrapped an arm around his scrawny shoulders and rests her cheek against the little boy's dark hair, closing her eyes, Alina drifts off into a sleep plagued by old lovers and and dreams filled with too-clever foxes and emerald rings.


 

"Beautiful," whispered the slender, white haired girl. The golden haired boy at her side grinned at her slyly.

"I told you I had a lot of money." She raised one eyebrow at him and tilted her head slightly to the side, a smile of her own playing across her lips.

"So you arrange celestial events now?"

"As a sideline."

The two stood there for a long time, staring up at the falling stars through the glass dome. She didn't notice his gaze shift from the stars to the way their light played on her pale hair and the made her eyes sparkle with starlight and unshed tears.

"I could promise to make you forget him," said Nikolai tentatively. Her eyes didn't shift from the heavens. "I'm not sure that's possible."

"You do realize you're playing havoc with my pride," Nikolai joked quietly, as he took her arm again.

"You're confidence seems perfectly intact," Alina scoffed as he lead her towards a quiet and secluded nook on the other side of the room.

"Think about it; I'm used to being the center of attention wherever I go. I've been told I could charm the shoes off a racehorse mid stride, and yet you seem impervious." She laughed softly, turning to look him in the eye.

"You know damn well I like you Nikolai."

"Such a tepid statement," he quipped with an exaggerated sigh.

"I don't here you making declarations of love."

"Would they help?"

"No."

"Flattery? Flowers? A hundred head of cattle?"

She turned red and shoved him, pointedly not looking him in the eye. There was a long pause, and then he spoke, quietly, gently. "Alina, on the very slim chance that we survive the next few weeks, I am going to ask you to be my wife."

Alina stiffened, her mouth going dry as she stared at him. "Even if Mal wants to stay on I'm going to have him reassigned," Nikolai continued, watching her closely.

"I understand," she said softly.

"Do you? I know I said we could have a marriage in name only, but if we... if we had a child, I wouldn't want him to have to endure the rumors and jokes. One royal bastard is enough." He said it quietly, his voice tapering off and eyes straying from her face as he said those last words.

"You don't have to do this you know. I could lead the Second Army, and you could have pretty much any girl you want."

"A Shu princess? A Kerch bankers daughter?"

"Or a Ravkan heiress or a Grisha like Zoya."

"Zoya? I make a policy never to seduce anyone prettier than I am." Alina laughed, then grinned at him.

"I think that was an insult."

"Alina, this is the alliance I want: the First and Second Armies brought together. As for the rest, I've always known whatever marriage I made would be political. It would be about power, not love. But we might get lucky. In time we might have both."

"Or the third amplifier will turn me into a power-mad dictator and you'll have to kill me."

"Yes, that would make for an awkward honeymoon." He took her hand gently, circling her wrist with his fingers. She gasped and looked down as mountaintop exploded into shards of golden-white sunlight.


 

She wakes with her hands bound. Her first coherent thought was that whoever had captured her knew her identity, her second was to wonder where they had taken Misha. A moment after this crossed her mind the door of the carriage opened and a head was poked in.

"She's awake!" Called the blonde haired boy in Fjerdan.

A moment later two men stepped into the carriage. One was a middle-aged man who wore a silver wolfs head helmet, and the black uniform of a drüskelle witch hunter. The other, wearing brown robes embroidered with golden sun bursts, and smelling heavily of incense- was the Apparat.

"Sankta Alina-" started the Apparat, in his oily voice, a smile that had to many teeth plastered onto his face.

"Where is Misha?"

"The boy is fine Sankta, he will be taken back to Keramzin as soon as this meeting is over."

"You mean as long as I do whatever you want me to."

"Sol Koroleva, it is so important to us that you are safe, and that we have found you-"

"How did you by the way? Sankta Alina's body was burned before your eyes, how did you find me?"

"I told him." A new voice, heartbreakingly farmiliar, as Mal stepped into the little room, which was beginning to get rather crowded at this point.

Alina stared at him, the pain in her heart showing on her face as she watched the former tracker. The two stared at each other for a moment, then Mal shook his head in disgust and stepped out the door. Alina heard him call Misha, then the clatter of hoofbeats.

"Sankta Alina," said the druskelle, a sneer evident in his voice as he said her title.

"Have you heard of Jurda Parem?"

 "Of course. They can't be true though, a drug that allows Grisha to use merzost? It's impossible."

"I assure you Sankta, it's very real. And we believe it may allow you to recover your powers." Alina looked up at him then, and the two men shared a glance.

They had her.

Chapter Text

Will you be my love,

Will you go with me,

Are you who I dreamed?

Or just a memory,

Will you understand,

What have to do

Will you be the man,

The one I thought I knew?

 

3 Months Later

Alina was underground again. The White Cathedral was blessedly less full than it was the first time, but she still didn't like it. The underground tunnels were swarming with priests and druskelle. At night she swore that she could sometimes here the echo of distant screams through the miles of damp and twisted passages. Alina had heard stories of the Fjerdan's experiments on Grisha from her friends when they had last visited Keramzin, but she could only guess where those screams came from. She was beginning to regret going with the Apparat.

The door to her room creaked open. "Sankta Alina," the priestguard said with a small bow as he stepped aside. The glittering gold kefta rustled as she stood, drawing its fur collar closer around herself. Silently, Alina and her guard walked the familiar passage towards the testing rooms. There she tried to summon light, practicing the hand gestures that had once come so naturally. Today was the day though. The day she would finally try the Jurda Parem.

A druskelle gestured her through and led Alina to a small room made of some kind of metal that reminded her of Grisha steel.  She caught a glimpse of the Apparat and the lead druskelle standing side by side in front of the mirrored window before the door slid closed behind her with a soft click. A small niche in the wall beside the door housed a little packet of Parem.  Alina looked at the mirror which she knew the Apparat stood behind and gingerly ripped open the packet.

A fine film of rust-colored dust drifted out and settled over her fingers. Alina closed her eyes, opened her mouth, and swallowed the packet's entire contents. Almost immediately she felt warmth blooming in her chest, filling the hollow ache that had sat there like sheath of ice around her heart. She could feel every strain of light drifting through the air, too faint for the keenest eye to pick up. She was the Sun Summoner, she was the sun, a star blazing to bright to look at as the light filled her veins and swirled through her. The air shimmered around her and she raised one hand, letting the light form a blade of pure, scorching light that slashed through the walls of her prison. 


Later, Alina couldn't remember what had happened. After the initial high she knew that she had been more powerful than anyone had expected, that it had lasted longer than most Grisha's did. Now, as she huddled in her room with the blanket from her bed wrapped around her shoulders she waited for what came next, the nausea, the sickness, the need for more Parem. She closed her eyes, remembering blazing white light, the thrill of her power rushing through her veins. The screams of burning men as she ran through the tunnels like a dying star, brilliant with power and light in those last moments before it goes dark.

Alina feels the aftereffects of the drug beginning to take hold, dragging her down into the darkness and filling her head with distorted memories. A boy with pale skin and glittering grey eyes, smiling with a mouth full of fangs, They will never understand you Alina, like calls to like, he will never be your equal. A girl with hair of flame, her face covered with stark black scars that writhed across her skin like snakes. The girl watched Alina with disgust and accusation, It's your fault, it's your fault I look like this now, It's your fault I'm a monster, she hissed. Then suddenly another vision; a thin boy with brown hair, screaming as he was torn apart by druskelle wolves, blood soaking his purple kefta almost black against the bloody snow.

Two young Shu, their golden eyes glittering as they advanced on her, chests ripped open to show hearts that still beat. The rotted arm of a young squaller digging itself out of its shallow grave. A boy with eyes and hair made of fire, a latticework of scarlet scratches marring his pale skin. A girl with shining dark hair and sapphire eyes who turned into a raven and flew at Alina, screaming. You aren't one of us, you never were, and you never will be. An old woman, lying broken on a bed of sharp rocks, her fingers dripping shadows, you have failed me little saint.

A forest of tree trunks, still smoldering at the top where a blade of light had cut them moments before. The blade returned, slashing through Alina with the heat and light of a thousand suns, shattering her vision into shards of white. Then she stood in the forest outside of Keramzin, the corpses of Ana Kuya, Botkin, and a dozen more Grisha instructors swinging from the old oak tree; their empty eyes staring at her, their bloated fingers reaching to claw and grasp her mangled kefta.

A moment later Alina stood in her bedroom at Keramzin, at the foot of her and Mal's bed. In it she saw two sleeping forms, Mal and one of the prettier teachers from the orphanage, tangled together in the sheets. Mal looked up, blue eyes cold and distant, when he spoke his voice was mocking, Did you really think that I would wait for you Alina? I've waited long enough, but you made your choice, this is your doing as much as mine. Mal was suddenly standing, a bow in hand. Without so much as a moment of hesitation he sent an arrow into her heart, then turned to kiss the girl beside him as Alina fell to the ground. As the world faded to black and red, one more vision filled her mind.

A sea of shadows, and in it's midst flew a ship, surrounded by light. The fox-captain called orders and the crew leapt to obey, destroying the monsters that screamed and beat at the sphere of her light. Then suddenly the darkness closed in, and the monsters came with it, their cries joining the screams of their dying victims. In one last effort Alina summoned the light to blaze in a golden halo around them. The ship was plunging toward the sand below, its deck slick with blood and littered with the dead and dying. Alina whirled to the cockpit, and just before they hit the ground she caught a glimpse of sunlight on bloodstained golden hair and open, empty hazel eyes.

 At the moment of impact she woke. She lay on the bed in her small room sweating and shaking, crying softly. The light was gone from her body, and the hollow ache in her chest was back. She raised one hand, trying to summon, and then slowly lowered it, knowing it wouldn't work. Her power was gone and so was the light, there was only darkness left.

She could feel the darkness like a living thing, like a pack of wolves closing in on its prey. But the shadows were hers to command as they had once been Aleksander's. Alina reached out with the scraps of power remaining to her, not to the light, but to the darkness. The darkness reached back. Coils of inky black curled up her arm like a friendly snake, lapping her pale skin with tongues of shadow that swirled around her like a shroud of black mist- no, not a shroud, a chrysalis.

The light was gone, no drug or amplifier could bring it back to her. But when she left this chrysalis of shadow she would be something new. Something dark where the Sun Summoner had been light. Something mysterious where she had been open and transparent. But it would be something beautiful all the same. She opened herself to the darkness and it came to her, flooding through her and filling the hole that her old power had once been. Her cheeks were still wet with tears, but she was smiling.

The aftereffects of the drug were fading, leaving her body at last. The shadows were filling her, leaving no room for the Parem. She would not tell the Apparat, of her newfound power, he wanted a Sun Saint, not a Darkling. Alina had no doubt that if he found out what she had become he would find some way to get rid of her.

Outside her room there was a sound of a scuffle. It was faint and muffled through the thick door, but still she heard it, soft thumps and a whispered conversation. Alina raised her hands, ready to summon the Cut if she didn't like who opened the door. But when the lock clicked open and the door swung inwards Alina gasped and dropped her hands. Standing in her doorway was a boy with ruddy curls, and muddy green eyes, and a very, very crooked nose.

Chapter Text

Alina isn't really sure how this happened. She tries to go over the events in her head, drug-addled mind slow and clumsy, tripping over its own thoughts and memories.

1. I take Jurda Parem and go crazy then lose my power

2. I have a bunch of weird hallucinations because of said drug

3. I learn how to summon darkness instead of light

4. Sturmhond shows up??

5. I am thrown over somebody's shoulder and carried down a hallway filled with Druskelle who are shooting at us

In Alina's defense, it was rather hard to think while bouncing against the shoulder of her rescuer (kidnapper? She didn't have a clue at this point) with every step. Also there was quite a bit of yelling and gunfire going on around her, and she was having trouble hearing herself think.

Eventually they rounded a corner and were greeted by a wall of Ravkan soldiers of both the first and second armies. Fire and wind swirled outward in a protective shield that forced the druskelle back while the soldiers of the first army took aim and the heartrenders clenched their hands into fists, stopping enemy hearts. A shouted command and a swirl of flame later they were through, safe behind the combined force of human guns and Grisha power.

Alina was gently lowered to the ground, huge hands gripping her shoulders and keeping her standing. Slanted, Shu-gold eyes stared down at her, filled with concern. "Tolya?" A broad smile. "Sankta Alina." The white-haired girl threw her slender arms around her neck and sobbed into his shoulder. The giant hugged her back and let her cry, then led her quietly away from the battle.Behind them she heard the roar of artillery, the shouted commands, the swirl of Etherialki wind, the screams of the injured and the haunting howl of Druskelle wolves.


 

She wakes to the whisper of Etherealki winds against her face and the soft snores of the girl beside her. Alina pushes herself up onto her elbows with a soft groan that makes Genya jump as she wakes from her dozing.

"Alina, thank the saints you're awake! We were so worried..."

"Genya where are we? How long have I been out?"

"Almost three days. Here, drink this, it should help with the Parem a little."

"You found a cure?"

"No, not yet. David and all of the senior Materealki have been working around the clock trying to find one, but so far they've been unsuccessful. This just helps to get it out of your system, it only helps with Grisha already recovering, unfortunately there aren't very many of those."

Alina carefully took the cup, looking down at the dull brown liquid before taking a tentative sip. Almost immediately she spat it out. Genya laughed softly, taking the cup before Alina could drop it, handing it back to her when her hands stopped shaking.

"Vile isn't it? But it really does help, drink as much as you can," a few minutes later, when Alina had drunk half of the cup Genya spoke again, startling Alina almost into spilling the cup all over herself.

"As for where we are the answer is Nikolai's newest monstrosity: Albatross."

"It's not as bad as the Firebird," said Zoya as the raven-haired girl settled down beside them with a sardonic smile.

"Saints that was a disaster," Genya groaned, burying her face in her hands.

"What happened?" Alina looked at Zoya as she asked the question, a small smile lifting the corner of her lips.

"Nikolai and David decided that they should try to design a ship that would run on fire or... something. When they crashed it on its maiden flight they set half of the Little Palace grounds on fire. The only one who was remotely happy was Harshaw."

Genya looked up, grinning at Zoya, "You spent almost an hour screaming at them. I'm pretty sure David is scarred for life."

"He is scared of me isn't he?"

"Terrified."

"That makes me so happy!"

Zoya smirked as Genya and Alina fell against each other, bodies shaking with laughter. The little nook where they sat was sheltered enough that nobody had seen Alina wake, but as they laughed Tamar and Nadia appeared beside them and flung themselves at Alina. They both hugged her fiercely, their happy greetings jumbled together unintelligible.


 

When they finally arrive at Os Alta (in the dead of night and cloaked by a couple of the Sun Summoners Nikolai had brought along for the purpose), Alina is rushed off to a soft bed in the Little Palace by Genya and Zoya.

It's not until almost two days later that she is finally able to speak to Nikolai. It's late, and Alina sits on the reconstructed pier in the middle of the lake. The moonlight shimmers on the surface of the water and makes her white hair glow like starlit snow as she tests her new power. A skein of shadow swirls between her fingertips while a second dances over the surface of the lake. Soft footsteps sound behind her and the darkness vanishes in an instant.

When she turns to look at the intruder of her privacy the first thing she sees is a pair of well-polished boots. As her gaze travels upward it takes in a man wearing clothes that looked far too put-together than any outfit had a right to be at this hour of the night. Above that a handsome face, golden hair and the most infuriating smirk she had ever seen.

"Hello sunshine."

"Nikolai," she turned away from him once more, letting the threads of darkness dissipate from between her fingers. From the corner of her eye she sees him sit beside her, gloved hands gripping the edge of the pier, legs swinging over the water.

"Your scars-"

"Still there. The gloves have set a bit of a trend among the nobles though, however much they may gossip about why I wear them. I suppose it's just one more rumor, it seems my life is rather full of them. Several of the stories are actually quite entertaining; I've ever contributed a time or two."

"Do you take anything seriously?"

"Not if I can help it. Makes life very tedious."

"Your insufferable," Alina rolls her eyes dramatically, but she can't keep the smile off of her face. She's missed this she realizes, she didn't even notice how much until they started talking.

"You wound me," the king presses his hand to his heart in mock horror at her words.

"I think you'll survive."

They bantered on for nearly an hour before Nikolai stood, stretching like a cat. He grinned down at her and offered a gloved hand to help her up. Alina took it gratefully, hauling herself to her feet.

"Sorry sunshine, even kings have to sleep sometime. And I really do need the next three hours, so I'm afraid I can't have company this time. However much I might want to. Maybe tomorrow?" He winked in a suggestive way that made Alina blush furiously.

"Ass."

Alina glared at him. He smirked. She shoved him into the lake with a splash. She laughed as the ripples spread out across the smooth surface, but as they fade so does her grin. Nikolai hasn't surfaced. Alina creeps to the edge of the pier, leaning over to scan the dark water.

She realizes her mistake too late to dodge the strong fingers that pull her in. She surfaces with a great deal of splashing and sputtering beside a cackling king. As she flounders toward the shore he slips through the water around her like an otter, swift and playful in a way she hasn't seen since he was aboard the Volkvolny as Sturmhond. She stops, watching him splashing and laughing, feeling her own heart lighten, pulling her lips into a matching grin.

It's night, and the water is cold, so it isn't long before they pull themselves out of the water and say their goodbyes. Alina slips back into the Little Palace under a cloak of her new powers (she hasn't actually done it with darkness before but it isn't hard to alter the technique from doing it with light). Still, it's tricky to sneak past the guards with her soaked clothing. When she finally does get to her room and change, she wraps a blanket around herself and curls in front of the fire like a great cat.


 

It becomes a routine. Slipping out of the palace around midnight and meeting on the pier. Sometimes they walk together through the palace grounds, sometimes one of them (usually Alina) shoves the other into the lake, sometimes they simply sit there and talk.

It's about two months later when it happens. They sit on the pier talking quietly of old battles and fallen friends, and Alina's fingers seek out his. They're cold, rough, not the rough of the gloves he usually wears but the rough of bare skin. She looks up at him, but he seems just as surprised as she that he does not wear his gloves. Alina traces the scars that run up his fingers, the black marks stark against his skin, and feels a shiver pass through him.

To both their surprise it's Alina who makes the first move. She leans up and kisses him quickly, pulling back an instant later and studying his face. He is frozen for a moment, then a self-satisfied smirk spreads slowly across his features.

"Well sunshine I was wondering how long it would take for you to succumb to my charms. What was it, my looks? My title? My charming personality? Or was it this wonderful smile?"

She glares at him, glad for the darkness as her cheeks turn hot, "I will hit you if you don't shut up Nikolai. You are the most egotistical, infuriating, incorrigible person I've ever-"

He kisses her. It's under the stars and the water sparkles and somewhere in the distance some night bird sings. It's perfect. And then all at once they are sneaking up the stairs toward Nikolai's room, laughing and kissing and they fall into his bed, still twined around each other.

When it's over she lies in his arms, warm and content. He lowers his mouth to her ear, and says something that makes her heart stop.

"Marry me." And she says, "Yes."