Actions

Work Header

Alina actually has time to think

Work Text:

The Black Heratic. He was...he was. Oh saints. She had fallen for the most hated man in history, so bad even his mother was trying to warn her away. To think she’d let him, that they’d nearly, saints, they’d been dancing around each other nearly three months and he couldn’t even work up the nerve to even tell her his mother was right in front of her. She had to leave, she had to, to find somewhere to hide from this man, this liar. But her heart rebelled at the thought. Could it really all have been a lie? A manipulation? Surely no matter how experienced you were in 'manipulating naive girls' you couldn't possibly fake that level of heartbreak, that loneliness and longing, that passion?

But what was the other explanation?

Could the history be that wrong? Well, yes, everyone knows history is written by the victors and King Anastas was definitely the winner there since the heretic was supposedly killed. But then again that proves at least some of the history wrong if Alexander was still alive and well today.

Could his mother truly have had another reason for scaring her away? Well, that one was slightly harder to explain. Maybe she'd really fallen for his mask? Believed he was really the unfeeling General he showed the world. Or maybe she was scared of change? If it had been just the two of them alone for such a long time, maybe she didn't know how to cope with the possibility her son might not keep choosing her.

Could she justify leaving just based on her own fears when there could be a perfectly reasonable explanation for everything? Throw away everything she had and could have here, with Aleksander, based on an old woman's ramblings, his mother or not?

Alina collapsed in the cramped tunnel, light extinguishing on the damp ground.

Could she do that to him? Leave him to fight these wars by himself again, without giving him the chance to explain or defend himself?

Could she leave him all alone now and face an eternity by herself in penance?

Alina knew she couldn't. She couldn't do that to Aleksander. No matter what he'd done he didn't deserve that. No one did. Mind made up Alina forced herself to her feet, following the tunnel along to the end with her own light, intentionality taking the wrong turn and coming out somewhere outside. She'd go back and wait for him like she promised, demand an explanation if she had to, but she wouldn't leave him like this.
It’s not like she was in any state to go tromping off into the wilds alone anyway.

She soon recognised her surroundings as the courtyard and stables of the Little Palace, where the visiting nobles' carriages would be left to wait for them. Thankful she knew where she was, Alina hurried across the empty space, head ducked, hoping to make it back unseen and unfortunately failing in turn to see the man putting out his pipe and creeping closer until it was far too late.

With a stab of pain in the back of her head, Alina slipped into unconsciousness.

When she came to Alina had no idea where she was, her pounding headache making it hard to concentrate beyond 'it's dark' and ‘is this what being seasick feels like'. It took some time for her head to clear enough to identify the rocking motion as that of a carriage on a narrow road and by the time she realised she wasn't inside the actual carriage but more likely a boot trunk she was well on her way to panicking. Recognising the feeling of rope around her wrists and legs was the final straw and before she knew it, she was struggling to breathe, vision eventually fading once more as she hyperventilated and quickly used up most of her air.

The next time Alina woke up she was laying out flat, something that brought her great relief in combination with the reduced pain in her head, on a relatively soft surface, presumably a cheap bed. Unfortunately, the room was still dark and when it occurred to her to change that she found herself still bound, arms tied almost like she was hugging herself around the waist and impossible to get her hands together.

Saints, I've been kidnapped. I don't know who by, or what they want. I don't know how long it's been. I don't know if anyone is looking for me-Aleksander. Oh no, what if he thinks I left him, will he even look for me? Will he find me in time?

Alina could feel herself beginning to panic again, struggling fruitlessly against the ropes until they cut bloody paths through her skin but unfortunately not loosening them in the slightest. Tired and in pain she laid there panting, swallowing the lump in her throat, and coughing when she noticed how dry it was. Just how long had she been knocked out?

At that moment keys rattled in the door and she dragged herself upright just in time for it to open and admit a pretty little Suli woman. Alina, however, knew better than to assume that she would be harmless, doing her best to curl in on herself and shift up the bed and away from her, refusing to even make eye contact while utterly defenceless, especially given the number of blades this woman seemed to have concealed on her.

The woman sighed, somehow dissatisfied with the level of fear Alina was displaying, eventually settling herself down gently on the edge of the bed next to Alina, ignoring her flinch and offering her what appeared to be water from a flask. She accepted the drink, well aware if they wanted to do something to her there would be worse ways than drugging her they could choose, and more than happy to risk being knocked out again if it would soothe the burn in her throat. As soon as the woman pulled the flask away Alina curled back once more, desperately hoping they wouldn't need to hurt her more than the blood caked into the back of her hair if she just behaved. Stayed quiet and did as they asked.

The woman sighed again, rising to her feet and seeing herself out, promising to return whilst in the same breath locking her back in the dark.

The dark was good though. She knew she was safe so long as she was alone there.

Alina rolled over, curling in tightly over her still stinging wrists, feeling fresh blood trickle free as she shifted, and hoping against hope they'd take mercy and see to them before she did any serious damage. Laying there, she knew she'd have to be patient and wait for rescue with how helpless she was trussed up like this. She could only hope her captors would be slow enough to catch and kind enough not to hurt her overmuch. A fool’s hope, but still the only hope she had. She allowed herself to drift off into an uneasy rest, a final prayer for any destination but Shu Han on her lips; she'd rather just burn to death than let them cut her up or steal her light and turn it on her friends.

A hand being laid on her shoulder jolted her awake sometime later, Alina flipping herself onto her back to better take in her surroundings. There were three of them in the room with her now, two men and the little Suli woman. They were all watching her. Alina slowly dragged herself upright against the wall, tucking her legs in close to her body. Was this the part where they’d tell her their plans for her? Threaten her? Make demands?

She knew she looked like nothing much, small, weak and terrified. Hopefully about as threatening as a rabbit. They kept watching her, staring, assessing. Alina guessed it was to make her nervous and she wasn’t ashamed to admit it was working. Still, she refused to be the first to break the silence.

“Alina Starkov, yes?” It was the shorter man who asked, presumably the leader with the way the others stood flanking him, not to mention the expensive looking cane and gloves he was sporting. She nodded warily, willing to bet they’d not be foolish enough to risk breaking into the Little Palace under Aleksander’s nose if they didn’t already know at least her name and description. “You’re worth an awful lot of money to a great many people.”

Slavers then. That really didn’t narrow it down.

“We’ll be moving on in an hour, the more you cooperate, Miss Starkov, the more painless the journey will be for you. Inej will help you change into something a bit more discrete before we leave,” he nodded at the women much to her relief. “Try something then and she’ll leave your wrists as are when she ties them again, and it’ll be Jesper helping you next time. Try something while we’re outside, later, and…well. I sure hope you won’t find out.”

Alina nodded her understanding. It seemed to her that her kidnappers could have been far worse, choosing to force her cooperation with kindness rather than beatings, at least at first, but the dark promise in this man’s eyes spoke to the levels of violence he would be willing to resort to if pushed. Alina decided then and there not to push. She couldn’t afford to take a physical beating from any of these people and missing too many meals wouldn’t do her any good either, especially if she eventually had to make a break for it.

The two men left, Alina taking care to note the many guns Jesper carried, though not nearly as many as Inej carried blades, and the heavy limp of the still unnamed leader. Any weakness she could learn here might just save her life after all. Inej didn’t waste any time after that, untying Alina and stripping off her kefta and petticoats almost clinically, though generously allowing her to keep her smallclothes. Whatever was left of her dignity thankfully being spared.

The dress she was put in was typical peasant wear, the sort of thing the baker’s wife might wear on market day, and about as far from the attention grabbing kefta as you could get. It looked like they were going for blending in to make their escape, she thought, but if nothing else the familiar clothing told her she was definitely still in Ravka. After that Inej cleaned and wrapped her wrists gently in soft cloths, appearing to have some experience with treating injuries, before allowing her to eat a roll and have some water before going to tie her hands again.

But then she hesitated, eyes flicking to the door and back several times before she eventually lowered the rope back into her lap.

“I-I, would you show me? Your light? I saw the display on the solstice but Kaz said it’s probably just some strange inferni trick. He’s never much believed in saints.”

Alina stared at her dumbly before a smile curled across her face, intentionally soft. Oh, gods, a believer. An actual, real life believer right here in front of her. Now this she could work with. She might just survive after all if one of her kidnappers believed she was the Sun Saint.

“O-oh, I would love to, Inej, but I can’t risk your… Kaz, was it? Thinking I was trying something with you in here.”

“He won’t have to know. It’s not like they’ll be able to see with the lamp light already going under the door. Besides, he doesn’t really want to hurt you, he just that he needs the bounty.”

“Well… I suppose if you’re sure.”

Alina a made a show of lining up her palms and closing her eyes, concentrating on bringing a soft glow to her skin much like she had shown Aleksander before the ball. A soft gasp told her she’d succeeded as she let it swirl around her body just a little bit longer before parting her hands and letting it die away again, sighing in relief.

“Gods, that felt so nice. I swear, ever since I found my light I can’t go too long in the dark before I start to really feel it.”

When she opened her eyes again, Inej was looking at her with what could only be called awe written all over her face, pressing her lips to some sort of religious charm. She believed. Alina felt hope build in her heart even as her wrists were once again tied so she couldn’t summon, a large cloak thrown around her shoulders to hide the bindings and shawl over her hair to hide the dried blood.

She would get herself out of this, one way or another she’d get herself home.

It felt unbelievably good to be back in the sun after however many days, Alina going so far as to walk around the shadows on the ground just to avoid losing that warmth for a single second, her captors usually allowing it since it kept her quiet and with a pleasant smile on her face. It was also useful for gathering information, taking long diversions around the town to stay in the sun. Whilst she was outside, she discovered it had been three nights since the solstice and, based on the mental map she’d been drawing of the town, and the fact they couldn’t be more than a day’s ride from Os Alta, she guessed they were just outside of Balakirev.

Funny how helpful years of map-making could turn out to be.

Unfortunately, since they’d clearly been smart enough to dump the carriage at some point and only take the four horses, that information was nearly useless, and they may as well be weeks away unless she could find help or get herself away unbound. She may have learnt to ride horseback in the Army, but not with both hands essentially tied behind her back.

And help didn’t seem very likely at this point. The whole day she’d kept an eye out for any brightly clad Grisha but hadn’t had any luck just yet. In three days, they’d have almost certainly found the carriage wherever they dumped it, though whether or not they’d then be able to track the horses through cobblestone streets was another question. Knowing Aleksander, however, if that failed he’d simply blanket the surrounding area with Grisha until a trail was found, so in theory she should be able to wait until she found someone and make a break for it to them for aid.

The real question though, was was that a risk she was willing to take? Could she afford to put her fate in someone else’s hands in her situation? Wait for Aleksander to come for her, find her vulnerable and alone, only to turn around and question him about his whole life? That wouldn’t really work at all towards her plans for an equal partnership.

She’d have to save herself for a change.

They returned her to her room that night, Inej untying her for a few minutes so she could eat and being kind enough to leave the lamp behind when she left her alone again. And now the work begins. Alina had a theory she’d been working on for some time, which, if it proved to be true, could be enough to get her home, not to mention something that if it could be taught would save many Grisha who found themselves captured.

Now she knew Grisha had to touch their hands together to summon their power, that seemed to be a proven fact, and yet no matter how much time she spent searching in the Little Palace library, she couldn’t seem to find out why. She had assumed it had something to do with the flow of power around the body, but if that were the case surely touching anywhere skin on skin would be enough, and any sort of barrier like even gloves would be enough to stop a summon, which was clearly not true. And anyway, that wouldn’t explain how Alexander kept pulling it out of her without either of them touching their hands together, which, living amplifier or not did not make any sense.

If the power was already there inside her, why should she need any sort or crutch to draw it out?

She started with meditation, trying to find that bubble of power where the books said it would be behind her heart, soon growing frustrated when it didn’t seem to be there. But where else could it be? She searched endlessly for her light, feeling it sliding just out of reach no matter where inside she looked until it finally dawned that of course it wouldn’t be contained somewhere physically inside her or the Shu would have unlocked Grisha power years ago. No, it was her. All of her. Her light suffused throughout her entire body equally whilst at the same time being all around her, hence why she could summon it to her. It was as the Grisha liked to say, ‘like calls to like’.

With that revelation, Alina snapped up in bed, feeling her light reaching out through her skin for the light around her and finding the expected silvery glow of moonlight when she looked down at her skin, bound arms and all. She’d actually done it. Now the real question, could she use it?

Alina collapsed back on her bed, panting. She’d barely been able to get a ball to form, never mind anything else. Saints it was like starting learning from scratch again, only without a cane-happy Baghra waiting for her to fail.

You know, now she thought about it, a lot about Alexander’s demeanour could probably be traced directly back to that old bag. With the way she teaches there was no way she was the kind of loving and supporting mother she should have been, especially to a boy she’d knowingly condemned to an eternity of her own loneliness. With her as his role model, she could understand why he’d see himself as other and held himself apart even from his own people, especially when also faced with losing everyone to aging.

Well not this time. Not if she could help it.

But she’d have to get herself back to him first.

Alina barely slept that night. She knew she’d been away from home more than half a week by that point and wasn’t sure how much longer it would be before Alexander did something extreme. If she didn’t see any Grisha tomorrow she’d have to attempt something. Maybe blind the kidnappers and run? But then that would leave her stranded and still tied up. Steal a knife before bed and then make a break for it in the night when they were asleep? Huh. That might actually work if she was clever enough about it.

Hopefully a Grisha would recognise her before that became necessary.

Or maybe not. These kidnappers were far craftier than she’d given them credit for. She had seen a few pairs of Grisha that day, but they hadn’t spared her a second glance. They hadn’t spared her a second glance because as soon as they’d ridden out of sight of the town, they’d stopped so Inej could shove a thick pillow up her dress, giving her the appearance of a heavily pregnant peasant riding home with her family for the birth.

And it was working.

They’d passed two pairs of inferni and even a pair of tidemakers she could’ve sworn she recognised. By the time they stopped for the night in a dense patch of trees, they were probably half-way to the fold, though noticeably angled south of Krisbirsk if her estimates were right. That made it a solid seventy miles ride straight back to Os Alta, which given she couldn’t go straight there if she wanted to lose her tail anyway meant it would probably end up being closer to 100 miles, or three days on horseback.

A week since she’d been taken, she’d be home.

That night she made her move. Feigning difficulties getting off the horse and general stiffness was not too hard since she remembered the feeling well, and the three of them left her sitting by the fire whilst they set themselves up for the night. Alina pretty much just sat there fidgeting and pulling faces until one of them took pity and untied her, allowing her to pull the pillow away and stretch herself out properly, seemingly from the horse but also in preparation to run later. After that it was just a waiting game, sitting quietly with her hands carefully folded in plain sight whilst the others fixed dinner and eventually offered her a bowl she took gratefully. She had three days without food to look forward to after all.

After that all she needed was some way to get hold of a blade before she as tied back up to sleep since there hadn’t been one for the dinner that night. The perfect opportunity presented itself when Inej was the one to approach her with the ropes not long later.

“W-wait. Can I-do you mind if I-I mean no one will see me here, right? Just for a few minutes? Please?”

Alina knew she had crossed the line into begging, but she really needed to sell this if she wanted to get her chance before they were any further from the Little Palace. Kaz was the only one who didn’t look moved, but luck was once again not on her side since his was apparently the only vote that counted, “no.”

Alina let out a resigned sigh, shoulders dropping as she proffered one wrist for Inej to start tying, accepting that she’d have to wait another day and up the drama some more then. It was at that moment Jesper, surprisingly, spoke up. “Oh, come on Kaz, what harm could it do. Let the girl play with her magic.”

The leader looked half a second from arguing when her little believer cut in, “he’s right, Kaz, it won’t hurt anyone. And besides, you know Grisha get sick if they don’t use their powers. Remember how she was the day before last? That was after just three days without, I don’t want to have to tie her to her saddle tomorrow.”

Huh. So, they were attributing her first morning of total fear and panic to a lack of summoning for a few days and not the trauma of being kidnapped and left tied up whilst they carted her off. She could work with that tomorrow if this failed.

“You let her summon? When? Why would you risk such a thing?”

“That first morning when she was changed. It was fine, she didn’t do anything harmful. You had to have noticed the change in her that day.”

“Oh, very well. But just for a minute.” Kaz snapped. “Keep close in case she tries anything.”

Alina was elated, this was it! She sat back next Inej, smacking a kiss to her hands before pressing the palms together, now unnecessarily, and calling the light up to bubble over and onto her skin, condensing it down into a fine silvery mist about an inch from her body. She smiled, softly, throwing her head back and sighing as she shaped some more specs of light into golden sunbursts and laid them over her mist. She’d never really been able to summon at night before this, so this was a great improvement, her smile genuine, until-

“Alright that’s enough!”

Alina jumped, startled, light disappearing as she fell over sideways and had to put her hands up to catch herself- on Inej. “Sorry, sorry, he scared me. I’m ready now.” Alina offered her right wrist, left hand falling back to her side to pick at her clothes. To slide something up her sleeve.

Haha, knife acquired.

Once Alina was safely trussed up once again the camp seemed to quiet, everyone curling up to get some rest, even Alina snuggled up as well as possible beneath her cloak. Thank god for her time in the First Army or she’d never be able to get any rest like that. Instead of sleeping, however, Alina slipped into meditation, breaths evening out and body relaxing in a way very reminiscent of sleep but leaving her hyper-aware of her surroundings. Of each of her captors falling asleep one by one. She started to saw at the ropes.

By the time she had freed herself and restocked her horse, it was already into the early hours, dawn not far off. Alina was just about to mount when she had a thought and looked back. They just needed the money, right? Not necessarily bad people, just desperate for some reason. Maybe there was something she could do, so they wouldn’t follow her. She dismounted. As she rode away, she left a small pile of sparkling golden hair pins and her diamond and onyx headdress where she’d lain by the fire. She had no idea how much she was worth, but it couldn’t possibly be as much as all those gems together. She kept only one hairpin, just in case she needed to buy anything, or even just to get a message to Aleksander.

She headed north quite some way before turning east, riding nearly the whole day and only stopping so her horse could rest the bare minimum before continuing. She couldn’t be sure they wouldn’t try and follow her even with the gold, so she had to make the most of her head start, either find some Grisha or a place to hide when she inevitably had to sleep. What she found was neither.

It turned out she wasn’t the only traveller staying off the main roads on their way to the capital.

The group she stumbled on were a diverse bunch, belongings hidden from the roads just inside the woods. The caravans were apparently the property of several merchants taking their goods to the bigger markets in Os Alta for better profits. When she entered their clearing leading ‘her’ horse she wasn’t sure who was more surprised, her or them to come face to face with about nine little families or one little peasant girl leading an expensive horse. Them, definitely them.

They looked just about ready to attack, hopping up and reaching for their weapons until they finally got a good look at her. She stopped dead, backing up and looking around fearfully, eyes wide in the way she knew make her look much younger than her 17 years, holding her little knife up shakily. Immediately the various women around the camp started berating their menfolk, drawing her into their circle and pulling the blade from her fist with gentle hands and seating her between them, doing their level best to prod her story from her between their cooing.

She told them she’d been home alone trying on her mother’s pretty jewellery when the men came. They couldn’t get the valuables off her fast enough, so they’d just grabbed her and tied her over their horse, eventually hitting her over the head when she’d tried to scream. When she’d woken up, they’d made her give it to them and she’d been able to get away whilst they were arguing over the jewels. “I could only save one of mama’s hair clips.” She held up the final golden clip with a single diamond embedded at the end, tears in her eyes, many of the woman gasping at the expensive piece. “I hope she’s not too angry with me.”

The women were quick to reassure her, insisting she let them take her back to the capital so she could get home safe. It seems that Alina had gotten lucky and the blood in her hair and the remains of ropes around her wrists helped her to sell her story. Speaking of which, while there wasn’t much to be done for her hair, the ladies, once they’d gotten the last of the ropes cut away, took one look at her wrapped-up wrists where the blood had soaked through and called for water to be boiled for bandages.

It seems she’d been lucky enough to be taken in by a group with some training as healers.

Arms bandaged and having eaten the stew she’d been offered, Alina settled in for the night. With the caravan she’d have food and some measure of protection from bandits, but it’d also lengthen her journey considerably since they travelled slowly with so many goods. It’d probably take an extra three days to get home, making it ten in total since she was taken, but was the delay worth it for the security?

For as long as they thought she was the child of some middle-class peasants they’d likely continue to protect her, but what if they insisted on escorting her to her family? She could hardly explain that she was the Sun Saint and expect them to act the same, assuming they even believed her and took her to the Little Palace rather than an orphanage or something. And, on that note, would she even be allowed entrance into the Little Palace as she was? She was hardly recognisable as the same polished and shiny lady she’d been on the solstice and she didn’t particularly want to be seen as she was anyway, especially not by Aleksander. She’d probably have to break in and clean herself up before she went and found him herself.

Why couldn’t anything ever be easy?

Alina decided she’d slip away the afternoon before they reached Os Alta in four days. If she could enter the city before the evening it might just give her a chance at getting back to her rooms under the cover of darkness. Back to Aleksander by dawn.

After she had had a bath and put on clothes that she hadn’t been wearing for a week. Gods, how she missed her kefta.

The next three days passed in relative comfort, the ladies continuing to cluck around ‘that poor traumatised girl’, making sure she was warm after finding out she’d been expected to sleep on the ground with nothing but her cloak and continuing to feed her whenever possible. It seemed she’d been well and truly adopted by the group. A shame, really, since they’d probably never meet again once she left them behind.

Speaking of which it was just after lunch on the tenth day when she decided to go on alone. Unlike the slow-moving caravans, she had a good chance of making it to the city before dusk and since she just ‘couldn’t bear to spend another night away from home’ (which was technically true if a bit misleading) the group let her go on ahead, though only after she’d promised to send word to the inn they would be staying at. She was so close.
She flew over the countryside, the horse she’d christened Babushka eating up the last distance just barely after dinner, allowing Alina to lead her through the gates unhindered and into the city. The city she quickly realised she’d never actually walked through before. Oh dear.
If it wasn’t for the distant ugly monument of the Grand Palace reaching into the sky Alina would never have found her way back to the familiar Little Palace courtyard from which she’d been taken to stable Babushka. She borrowed a brush and some feed and gave the poor girl a brush down whilst she plotted her way into the palace, thoughts constantly drifting to the bath she so desperately needed-that was it. People she’s seen and even spoken to before when riding weren’t even really seeing her whilst she was just doing the work of a stable hand, why would anyone notice a maid taking bathwater up to someone’s rooms?

Goddamn, all that plotting with Mal back at the orphanage had given her one canny mind.

When she’d finally finished with Babushka she returned the brush to it’s proper place and made her way from the stables, borrowing a pinafore and carrying the basket someone had thrust into her arms full of…cheese? Without even looking at her. Wow, the serving classes here really were invisible. It was, however, perfect, as it gave her an excuse to go to the kitchens where she presumed bathwater was heated.

It was. Alina had looked around lost for just a few seconds after reaching the kitchens before being pointed to a backroom, steam pouring out as she entered, to find a huge vat of water set over an obviously Durast fire to keep it hot. She took down a bucket and filled it as carefully as she could, deciding a real bath would wait for a team of maids willing to carry that much water to her rooms, and that she’d be fine just washing up for now. She had survived with less in the Army after all.

From there it as a straight line up to her rooms, or, well, almost. Navigating the servant’s corridors was a pain, and if she had been anything less than an experienced cartographer with intimate knowledge of the Palace the water would likely have been worse than just lukewarm by the time she got to her rooms and shut the door behind her.

Home at last.

Alina barely glanced around before stripping out of the grimy peasant dress and almost as dirty silk smallclothes. It didn’t look like anyone had been in here since she’d been taken except maybe to dust. She scrubbed at her skin with the water, seemingly more dirt than girl for several minutes. Eww. Her hair was another matter entirely though. Eventually Alina decided she couldn’t just leave it as it was with the blood still caked in and set to scrubbing, eventually having to resort to the now ice cold water usually reserved for washing hands in the corner of her room when her own became too filthy to be of any more use.

Brugh. Well, she was wide awake again if nothing else.

As clean as she was going to get, Alina dried herself off with her softest towel and pulled out her smallclothes and favourite kefta. The very first black one she’d been offered back when she could barely call herself a summoner but hadn’t worn except for in the privacy of her room.

It was finally time. She was the best summoner she had ever been and had already made her decision to be Aleksander’s equal, it was time for her to reflect that.

It fit snugly, enveloping her like a warm hug after a week out in the cold. Alina looked in the mirror- she was ready. She left her rooms after that, making a beeline for Aleksander’s dark suite and not caring who saw her- this was her home now after all. She was sure word had been spread by the few wandering Grisha she had passed by the time she was pushing open the black doors and then kicking them closed behind her. It wouldn’t be long until he came running, and she’d be waiting right here like she should have been so long ago.

It was barely ten minutes before the doors opened again.

She turned.

There he was, her Aleksander standing there and looking at her with such an expression of hope and amazement she couldn’t have turned her eyes away if she’d tried. Then and there she knew his past could never matter, not to her, not when he looked at her like that, like she literally lit up his world just by living in it. She took a step closer and that was all the encouragement he seemed to need, breaking the spell as he crossed the distance between them in seconds, pulling her in tight against his chest like he thought she would disappear.

Like he thought he would be alone.

“You and I are going to have a long talk about your past, Aleksander. About that old hag that calls herself your mother and about your plans for the fold,” she could feel him tensing, “but later. First, you’re going to take me to bed and keep holding me like this until you’ve realised I’m home, I’m safe, and I’m not leaving you.”

Hours later, wrapped tightly around her in dark sheets, he finally seemed to loosen up, grip relaxing with the slightest tremor. “Alina. You came back.”

“Sleep, Aleks, I’ll still be here in the morning. We have all the time in the world to talk whenever you’re ready, I’ll wait.

“Promise?”

“I promise.”