She knows he’s back before they even send the messenger.
Like calls to like.
“Are the shadows livelier than usual?” Alina asks Katya, whose small, chubby hands are trying to form the ball of dough into something resembling a baguette. Or a bun? Alina isn’t entirely sure what they’re making at this point.
“Huh?” Katya asks, tongue poking out between her missing front teeth as she surveys the room. “They are shadows.”
Alina eyes the corner of the kitchen. The dimming sun outside has left it shadowed, unwelcome. They seem to curl at the edges, as though alive. “Not always,” Alina tells her, then bites her tongue at the frightened look Katya directs up at her.
Mal swoops in at that moment, scooping Katya off her stool, spinning her around. She giggles wildly into his chest, her flour-coated hands leaving little marks on his jacket.
“Is Alina trying to frighten you with stories? It’s not even bedtime!”
But as he says this, Mal’s eyes are on those shadows, the edges of his eyes crinkling in a way Alina has not seen for a handful of years.
What is infinite? He asked her once. Twice. A thousand times.
The universe. The greed of men. At one moment in time, the two of them.
Light no longer dances across her knuckles or palms. There are spots in the house where she will lounge and try to soak in as much of the sun as she can, as though that might remind her body that once, they could manifest the same sort of light or heat.
It never works; there is no more sunlight in her veins. Instead, it is spread like roots through Ravka, awakening with new eyes and minds and hearts.
She doesn’t want it back, not really. Alina Starkov is a dead woman, a Saint, and she is better that way. And yet.
And yet, the shadows grow longer, more restless, and Alina focuses on the words of an old, regretful woman, and tries to summon the sun to her hands.
Alina and Mal are in bed one night, curled into one another. He asks, “Have you seen him?”
There have been moments where looking Mal in the eyes has been difficult for Alina. Never before that day on the Fold, but moments in the months afterward, Alina struggled to meet and hold his gaze. There were always things she did not want to see.
Now, Alina meets his gaze. I was afraid of losing you, he said once, and she can see this echoed in his eyes now.
What is infinite?
Fear can be infinite.
“No,” Alina tells him. She has wandered deep into the forest to see if he would come. She has called out to him, voice soft as his name slipped, for the first time in five years, from between her lips. She doesn’t know why.
Why invite sickness back into your life, your home, once you’ve rid yourself of it? She is evoking the name of a demon, a spectre, a boy, and hoping that this time he will show kindness or mercy or growth.
But Alina passes by a tree where once, a woman swung from a rope. She sees the way Mal sometimes avoids shadows. She comforts Misha from nightmares, and sees Nikolai’s shaking, stained hands in her own dreams.
“If he is back,” Mal whispers, his breath brushing against her lips, warm and familiar. “Then we’ll deal with it. We’ve killed him before.”
Alina presses herself into the curve of Mal’s body, and holds tight.
Seeing him again, blindfolded, bound, powerless, is a rush.
He looks different, but that voice is very much the same. Alina notices that when she speaks, he pauses, as if spooked.
I am not the only one haunted, it would seem. Alina smirks at the thought, at the knowledge.
As a group, they move inside; Misha had insisted on coming when he learned the news, fat, angry tears streaming down his red face as he tried to catch his breath, tried to understand what was happening. Now, he is her small body guard, shadowing her and Mal as they settle into their seats.
Speaking with him is like falling back into a habit, a rhythm she could never quite forget. Mal is tense beside her; their past sits before them, taunting and so familiar. Mal died to kill this man, and here he sits.
He asks, “And does that make your grief any less?”
She is honest in her answer, and she can see the way this affects him. Alina is happy, and she is living in peace, and these are two things that Aleksander Morozova will never, ever understand. There is pity and sadness still in her heart for this man, and she can see when he spots it in her gaze.
Mal jokes to dispel the tension, and she loves him so very much for that. For being able to joke, for loving her enough to sit in this room with the Darkling, with a version of herself that sometimes still lingers, just under her skin.
He tells her his plans, his dreams, and Alina does understand these things. She knows how it feels to fight for something that seems just out of reach. Alina is hopeful when she asks about his regret, disappointed by his honesty.
When he stabs through Alina and Mal’s clasped hands, Alina expects her own power to come flooding back. She is angry at his actions (though never surprised by them) and fearful for Zoya, and her family, but more than anything, she is gutted when she feels no warm rush of light through her veins.
But the Darkling, wreathed in shadow, does not attack her, or Misha or Mal. He leaves.
“I think I may die tomorrow.” His voice cuts through the quiet of Alina’s morning, though it does not startle her.
Outside, the children are playing hide and seek with Mal. She watches from a window on the second floor, one of the best places in the house to soak up the midday sun. Alina does not turn away from the window, even as he sits in the opposite end of the window seat.
He has not visited her, in this form or his real one. Disappointment, relief--they aren’t the words she could use to describe how she felt when she realized, after a few months, that there likely wouldn’t be a visit.
She knows what he did during the war. His role in securing Zoya the throne.
She pulls her eyes away from the yard when Mal’s broad frame disappears into the trees. “Second time’s the charm, I’m told.”
He looks tired, her ghost. His hair is tied back, though pieces of it fall forward into his pale face. When he catches her looking, he straightens his spine, mouth curving up slightly. “We will see.”
“Why are you doing it?”
He does not say, I have heard you in my head for months, asking if I regret it.
He says to her, “It’s my purpose.”
Alina asks, “Have you ever considered that your purpose is to be happy? Not everyone needs to make a difference, Aleksander.”
She watches the shudder wrack through him at the sound of his name from her lips. Speak my name once more.
“What is infinite?” he asks, voice thick with something Alina cannot quite admit is emotion.
“The universe,” she murmurs. “The greed of men.”
“Us,” he breathes. Then, he chuckles. There is no humour in it. “Or it should have been.”
Alina inhales deeply, tilting her head against the glass. Her hair, which she had not braided back today, slips across her shoulders. Aleksander’s eyes follow it. She has, on her worst days, imagined a world where she said yes, and allowed him to make a monster out of her.
“I cannot imagine the loneliness you must have felt, all those years,” she tells him softly, secretly.
The Darkling would have scoffed at her, or used her words against her; turned them into jabs, hurt her with them.
Aleksander Morozova tells her, “No, you cannot.” Before she can say anything else, he carries on. “It had been five years. What could change in such a short amount of time?”
“The world moves on,” Alina shrugs.
His gaze is steady, his jaw tight. “So it does. The monsters sitting on the throne are doing a passable job at holding it.”
“Zoya will be an excellent queen,” Alina agreed.
A shriek from outside has them both turning their gaze to the front lawn once more. Mal is on the ground, three children pinning him there while another races to touch the house. Alina is the one who decided the house would be a “safe” zone in hide and seek--it was the only way she could possibly win against Mal.
“I think I may die tomorrow,” he says once again. She looks at him, but his gaze is still on the world outside the window, unfocused and ageless.
“Are you afraid?”
He smiles, very slightly. “It will not be the first time I’ve died, Alina.”
She curls up tighter at the sound of her name. “But are you afraid?”
“I do it for Ravka,” he says, avoiding the question once again. Alina can see the truth in that careful avoidance, in the way he has loosened his posture. His foot brushes her shin, a phantom touch. “Everything I have ever done has been for Ravka. For the Grisha.”
“I hope it is quick,” Alina murmurs, reaching a careful hand out to him.
Slowly, he raises his own hand, hovering it over her own before they brush against one another. Alina remembers what it was like to truly touch him, to feel her power rise to the surface and ache to be released.
“Peace looks good on you,” Aleksander whispers. She imagines his hand tightening around hers. She loves this man, and hates him. “Goodbye, Alina.”
His eyes shutter, and then she is alone on the bench, hand outstretched.
She discovers later that he sacrificed himself to stop the blight. That his final words were not ones of regret, or repent; they were of Ravka.
What is infinite?
The universe. The greed of men. Aleksander Morozova.