by mihlen & idolkilling
The monster first appears four months into the evaluations. It stands in the northwest corner of the psychologist’s office, tucked behind the floor lamp in the corner. It resembles a shadow, just some dimly lit angle of the room so closely that Alexei could almost excuse how no one else seems to see it—but once Dr. Lennard clicks on the light, it’s all too obvious that there is nothing between the lamp and the walls to cast so stark a silhouette.
He can tell it’s watching him.
Though, if so, Alexei hardly knows why. Each monthly session goes the same as the last. The same checklist of questions, the same tired string of answers. Perhaps, like Dr. Lennard at his desk and the Colonel beside him, the monster is waiting for something to change.
But, eight months in now, nothing does. Alexei still sits in the cheap wooden chair, back straight and knees together, gloved hands prim in his lap.
“It’s the middle of the night,” Dr. Lennard reads off the paper on his desk, “and your commanding officer retrieves you and walks you out onto the field. In the middle of the field, there is a dog. He tells you to kill it. What do you do?”
“I break the dog’s neck,” Alexei replies, without haste or hesitation.
“Why do you do that?”
“I haven’t been given a gun, but I have to fulfill my orders. I don’t want blood to stain my clothes or the field.”
Dr. Lennard glances at the Colonel, a broad man with a perpetual frown, who doesn’t nod so much as blink his approval.
“Same scenario. It’s a woman.”
“Do I recognize this woman?”
“Then I silence her first, then do the same,” Alexei replies, since he would recognize all superior officers, foreign dignitaries, and persons of interest.
“That woman is later revealed to be your biological mother. How do you feel?”
“I have no allegiance to a woman I don’t remember,” Alexei says. “The army was my highest bidder. I’m owned by the State.”
Dr. Lennard peers up at Alexei then with a furrowed brow. “That’s an atypical answer for an eighteen-year-old boy.”
Though Alexei doesn’t scowl, the tension in his eyes shifts. There it is again, Dr. Lennard’s fixation—it’s reared its head in almost every session so far. Like every time before, the Colonel cuts in. “For the hundredth time, Hank,” the Colonel says with a slow, punctuated anger, “he’s not a typical boy.”
For whatever reason, it seems the military psychologist was the only one who didn’t get the memo. The Colonel has no patience for it.
“He’s a military asset. He’s his own listing on the budget for fuck’s sake—the sooner you get that through your head, the sooner I can stop wasting an hour of my time every goddamn month making sure you don’t fuck things up.”
Though clearly more displeased than chastised, Dr. Lennard clears his throat and continues down the list of questions.
Alexei answers as he always does, bluntly and automatically. The military is no Wonderland—there are no trick questions or whimsies. The expected replies are obvious, and when Alexei says them, he means them. He understands that this is what he was raised for.
But as the minutes tick by, the fine hairs on the left side of his neck start to stand on end. There’s a charge to the air, like the crackle of a taser as it fires. Don’t they feel it, Alexei wonders, the congealing of the air? The curious, creeping chill? But if they do, neither Dr. Lennard nor the Colonel show it, which is to say that they don’t notice it at all.
Out the edge of his vision, the monster looms in the corner, stretched from floor to ceiling. It stands obscure like a figure in the fog, and it watches him without eyes or wandering. Somehow it notices Alexei’s attention, though Alexei hasn’t so much as glanced at it, and it raises the haze that, in a bout of pareidolia, resembles a head.
Suddenly, it opens its mouth.
Dr. Lennard glances up from his paper, meets Alexei’s eyes. “What was that, Alexei?”.
“I said that I don’t have anything new to report,” Alexei replies, impassive. He ignores the monster in the corner as readily as if it weren’t there at all. “I am given objectives and I meet them. I believe my performance has been satisfactory.”
In his periphery on the opposite side, the Colonel stares at him, cold and unreadable as ever.
“Are we done here, Doctor?” Alexei asks.
The old doctor gives Alexei a good long look before giving a drawn-out sigh through his nose. “Yes, our time is just about up,” he says, taking off his glasses to wipe the lenses. “I’ll see you again next month, Alexei.”
As Alexei leaves, he feels the monster’s prickling gaze on his back. Sometimes, he wonders if it longs to follow him, but it never does. Like all the times before, he pays it little mind, leaving the monster to its lurking.
However, today, as he heads back to the barracks, Alexei can’t help but turn in his head those strange, white noise words again and again:
What are you doing here, Alexei?
By all means, that should be Alexei’s question to ask.
As he crunches through the powder snow back to the barracks, he toys with the thought of saying so next month, when he’ll inevitably see the creature in the corner once again.
By the time he reaches the doors, he’s decided against it.
Alexei’s status in the military was both ill-defined and unequivocal. His schedule was erratic rather than regimented, split between covert operations and service as a training aid for the rest of the brigade. Though he had less authority than even the newest recruit, he was clearly valued above all of them, granted exceptions that, through the lens of ignorance, resembled privileges.
But really, what outraged the soldiers most was the blunt fact of his appearance.
Not even 160 centimeters tall; despite his unnatural strength, his stature was almost stocky, visibly soft in the arms and thighs even under the cut of his uniform—red, unlike the dark neutrals or camouflage patterns shared by the rest of the troops. Exempt from military standards, his golden hair was kept long enough to tie up with a string, and his skin was so smooth that the day he arrived, discontent had rippled across the base: The General’s brought a girl, they had whispered. A young one.
The whispers had only grown once he was confirmed to be a boy.
“Must be nice for Alice,” soldiers sometimes drawl as they pass him by in the mess hall. “How high up the ladder d’you gotta fuck to never scrub a floor?”
“Didn’t you hear? Pets don’t do chores.”
Then they laugh, as though forty people haven’t already beaten them to that stunning display of originality.
It’s those same soldiers, however, that sing a different tune in training.
Today is a typical drill: Twenty-eight soldiers in their sensor vests; Alexei in his plainclothes uniform. Twenty-eight soldiers with live guns; Alexei with paint bullets.
All things considered, it’s a fair game.
The bunker rattles with real gunfire as the platoon approaches—they’re scared of him, what he’s capable of. Is he in the brush, watching them? Has he already flanked them, with a bullet for every head? Or is he trapped in the bunker, suppressed by cover fire as they hope he is?
Alexei is in the bunker, but not how they expect him. He idles his time in an officer’s room, sorting through field rations: nuts and biscuits, powdered milk, shredded beef. Why? No reason, really. To kill time, he supposes.
Sudden movement. Alexei whips around, fires once, but his heart is calm, eyes impassive. It’s impossible for anyone to be here yet—so it must not be a ‘one’ but a ‘thing’.
The monster stands before him, a stone’s throw away, closer than it’s ever been. His bullet’s left a blue stain on the concrete wall behind it. It feels wrong, somehow, to look at it from this distance. He feels its presence inject something cold, something heavy into the air; something with a name he can’t quite place.
This close, he can see its eyes like headlights on a new moon, too bright in the bunker’s dimness. For just a moment, Alexei is stunned by the yellow of them, bolder than even his own golden hair; its sclera glow like molten amber, twin dots of obsidian melting in their cores. Piercing, its pupils are nearly indistinct from charcoal irises, only visible to Alexei by proximity to his own umber gaze.
He parts his lips, hair rising on end. This isn’t what happens. This isn’t what he does. He doesn’t speak to the monster in the corner, doesn’t look at it or acknowledge it.
“Alexei?” it says—clearer this time, words rising from the ether as though carried by the wind—but there’s no time to answer.
From down the hall, a door crashes in, signaling the breach. With a click of his tongue, Alexei leaps forward and shuts off the light. In the newfound darkness, the monster’s eyes seem too sharp, too clear as they track him. Alexei ducks behind the desk, ignoring its prickling stare.
He sits calmly, one foot braced against the bulk of the wooden desk, and he waits. In the silence, there’s just him, his heartbeat, his breathing, like he’s the only one there at all.
Alexei shivers, but he waits.
He could have leapt out first. He could have scaled the walls, ambushed them from the vents. He could have let them shoot him, walked on bleeding until he reached them like the living dead. But instead, he waits. He watches the ceiling above the doorway, listens carefully.
When the door opens, the hall light floods the ceiling, and the thin sticks he’s jammed into the hinges crack. He waits two seconds, and then with a quick breath kicks the desk forward with all his might.
The first two soldiers cry out when the desk flies into them, and the squad’s careful formation falls apart. Alexei wastes no time. He vaults over the desk, fires twice with his rifle. He lands over their prone bodies and surges forward with his shoulder. Despite his shorter stature, he’s stocky, stronger. He catches the third soldier below her rifle, knocks her off balance. With his handgun, he shoots her stomach point blank, splashing blue against her vest.
He scoops her waist before she falls, and with a twist, flings her out the door into the hallway into her comrades. Bang. They go down. “What the hell?” says the last one standing as Alexei aims and shoots him too. Bang.
“Fuck!” a ‘corpse’ shouts behind him, slamming his fist to the floor.
Alexei ignores any spittle or spitfire, simply shoots each of them in the helmet one more time so he can move on—a confirmation shot is only common sense, after all. First squad down without reporting position on the radio.
“ ‘The game’s going on rather better now,’ ” Alexei murmurs to himself.
Now, he takes the initiative.
Without waiting—without looking to see if the monster decides to follow—Alexei bolts down the corridor, rifle in both hands. His footsteps are quiet, but the rest of the soldiers are on the alert.
“There!” someone cries, and fires. Alexei sees the bullet, lets it miss. It ricochets off the wall behind him, and for a split second, Alexei wonders if the monster has meandered into its path.
But it’s not his concern, and he shoots as he runs, taking out two more men with precision. With a leap, he springs forward at an angle, pushing off one wall to the other. He gains ground swiftly, the soldiers lagging with alarm.
They’re older than him, many twice his age. All of them have been in the military longer, but none of that matters. No human soldier, no matter how experienced, stands a chance against him.
Still, he breathes a little heavily once he’s done, straightening with one final sigh. He ignores the twinge of pain, where a bullet actually scraped his side—it would be gone soon enough— and instead scoops up one of the fallen radios.
Click. “Alexei, over.”
The radio crackles. Go ahead, Alexei, over.
“Simulation ended. Platoon was wiped out. Over.”
He knows the drill by now.
The bodies all come back from the dead, shambling towards the entrance. Anyone hurt, their leader asks, and soldiers list off their answers. Alexei doesn’t listen. Aside from some bruises, no one is wounded. It wasn’t his job to maim.
The soldiers get evaluated on their performance, but Alexei does not. It is simply assumed that he performed as designed. The soldiers leave for their debrief, leaving Alexei in the bunker alone.
As the last of them file out, he feels cold static crawl up the back of his uniform.
Though he’s not sure why—just an impulse, perhaps—Alexei turns and looks up at the monster. “Were you injured?” he’s surprised to ask.
The monster, too tall, still somehow obscure, cants what appears to be its head. “Were you?” it asks.
“I’m not,” he says.
“But were you?” it insists, and Alexei pauses.
“… Yes,” he replies, haltingly. “I suppose I was.” How odd a question. Has he ever been asked that before? But Alexei doesn’t dwell on the matter, simply smooths at his clothes. “It’s put a fine hole in my uniform,” he says.
For a moment, the vague shadows of the monster seem to shimmer with clarity. Its yellow eyes turn to little crescent moons. “Well, on the whole, how do you feel?” it asks, words dancing with an unfamiliar humor. Ha.
“Perhaps a little frayed,” he replies, more to whet his own wit than to be honest—then he remembers himself. He looks away. “Is this how it is, then,” he asks, lifting a foot as he leans at the waist to retrieve his discarded weapon. “You’ll be seeing me more often?”
“Do you mind?”
It’s obvious that he should. And yet, he finds his answer easily. “No. Not at all,” he says, tucking his equipment under his arm.
“You didn’t answer my question.
Behind him, the monster cocks its head to one side. “Haven’t I just?”
“Before that. Were you injured?”
To his surprise, between blinks, the monster is there before him. Almost startled, Alexei’s gaze makes the long journey from its foot to its crown. It’s tall as a small tree, as willowy, with odd tendrils of shadow making up its roots. “No,” it replies. “Can’t you tell?”
“Of course not. I can hardly make you out at all,” Alexei says.
The monster says nothing to that, merely shifting to the side, and just the two of them like this, Alexei can hear the odd, dry slither of its tendrils as it moves. It doesn’t respond, and he wonders if he’s offended it.
Even so, as he leaves, he can’t help but feel certain that he’ll see it soon again.
At 21:00, Alexei returns the 6.8 square meters of military property allotted to him. His bed, fastidiously made, lies along the grey windowside-wall, with a wooden dresser at its feet and a desk to its left, bare save for a lone blue novel stacked upon the hutch.
His nighttime routine is short and perfunctory. Schedule offset from normal soldiers, he showers alone. He changes from his assigned uniform to his equally stiff, chafing assigned nightwear—white—and then whiles away the hours in his private room, reading or reminiscing or readying for tomorrow, until the moon peers its luminous eye into his lone, west-facing window.
When Alexei finally lies down to rest on the cheap spring mattress, he sleeps on his side, facing the wall. He keeps his back to the closet door, bundles against the winter chill that seeps through the windowglass, and sleeps in stark, brutal silence.
True to its word, the monster sees Alexei more often—and, concomitantly, he sees it more as well. Never in the mess hall or during drills, but in the quiet moments in between. It finds him by the copse of trees by the recreation center or the walk from training to the barracks, though it always stops short of the building or vanishes as soon as another appears.
It’s almost a game, or maybe a dance, both luxuries Alexei can’t spare the attention. Still, he could hardly be blamed, he thinks, for being drawn in by those eyes.
“ ‘Well, I’ve often seen a cat without yellow eyes,’ ” Alexei muses blandly to himself. “ ‘But yellow eyes without a cat!’ ” How curious that is.
So sometimes, on the days the monster doesn’t come to him, Alexei seeks it out—not directly, but with searching glances. Was that it in the shadow of the snowbanks? Is the chill over his skin the monster or simply the winter air?
Today, however, he doesn’t see it at all.
On holidays, everyone becomes restless. Recruits and soldiers alike become anxious to head off, to go home. Sometimes, his superior officers remember to assign him a mission before heading to their rest. This time, they don’t spare him a thought, no more than they would a grenade on Christmas or Hanukkah.
And so, despite himself, Alexei wanders. He checks behind the commissary, in the tunnels beneath the training center, the garden not yet sprouted along the southern wall.
In the end, he stumbles upon it in a place he’s never been before at all—a grassy knoll on the east side of the base, far past the airfields. Its dark figure, black as ink, seems to blur at the edges into the sunset’s watercolor sky.
“Is this where you always are when you aren’t stalking me?” Alexei asks, approaching the monster from behind.
It turns over its shoulder to glance at him, and again, its eyes twinkle like stars in the night. “No,” it replies in a voice like velvet and offers out a hand. Alexei ignores it, ascending the hill on his own. “Just today.”
“Serendipitous, then, that we met today at all,” Alexei remarks, looking out from the hill to see whatever it is the monster had been watching so intently. He sees nothing of note—clouds hanging low in a dying sky, mountains on the horizon.
“Isn’t it always?” the monster asks, and Alexei considers it.
Well, he supposes so. It isn’t as though they plan these little rendezvous.
Though Alexei doesn’t speak, the monster follows his line of sight. “It’s nicer in the morning,” it explains, and Alexei notes how its words don’t fog as it talks. “Have you ever watched the sunrise?”
“I have two eyes and walk the earth,” Alexei states, matter-of-fact, feeling the fog of his own.
“Is to see something in passing the same as to watch?”
“When it comes to me, they’re the same.”
The monster doesn’t reply to that, simply seems to return to its viewing of things Alexei can’t perceive. “Come again sometime,” it says then, “in the morning.”
“Whenever you’d like,” the monster replies. “I’ll be here.”
And well, considering everything, Alexei decides he’d be a fool not to believe it.
“A child shows you his collection of pinned insects. While you’re observing them, one of the butterflies starts to move, still alive. What do you do?”
“And if you were ordered to kill the insect?”
“Do I have to preserve its shape?”
“Then I leave it be. It will expire on its own.”
“If you were ordered to kill the child?”
“Then I do.”
This time, it’s a nondescript city in Europe, so confidential that Alexei’s hardly allowed to think its name, let alone say it. In the beautiful study of a sequestered country house, the Commerce Minister of a certain country blows smoke from his cigar. Alexei stands in the doorway.
“To think they’re sending children to do a man’s work nowadays,” the minister says with a scoff, pulling a gun from his desk drawer. Click.
In a flash, Alexei darts forward and lashes out his hands. He curls his fists against the steel wires looped around each finger, yanking the pistol from the Minister’s grip. Before the old man can react, he wraps the wires’ length around the Minister’s neck. Dodging behind, Alexei kicks the Minister’s legs down to his knees, braces a foot between his shoulders, and pulls.
The minister’s cigar falls to the floor, rolling across the hardwood.
Strangulation isn’t pretty. The Minister’s eyes bulge, mouth agape but unable to gasp. Alexei watches as the man claws at his throat, trying to dig his fingers into his iron noose, but the wire’s cut into his flesh, where his fingernails can’t reach. Blood weeps from his throat like rubies on a silver necklace as his face darkens to an ugly puce.
Transferring the bulk of the wires to one gloved hand, Alexei recovers the stolen gun with the other, dragging it up from the floor. It’s right by his foot as the door to the study creaks open. Alexei reacts before any conscious thought, snapping up the pistol—a Beretta, he notes crucially— and snatching it out of the air. Check the safety. Check the slide. Aim. The instant the intruder’s face clears the door, he fires.
The bullet goes straight through the woman’s throat as she opens her mouth to scream. Or, maybe it was to beg for her life. Then I silence her first, Alexei thinks idly as she crumples to the floor.
She doesn’t die instantly. She writhes on the floor, hand twitching. Blood burbles from her mouth as she tries to look up at him, eyes bright with fright and curses until they glaze.
Alexei doesn’t recognize her. Is it the minister’s mistress? A maid? In the end, it doesn’t matter, since his commanding officers would want her dead. Like the evaluations with Dr. Lennard, there is only ever one correct answer.
As Alexei holds fast on his makeshift garrote and waits out the final minutes of the minister’s life, he thinks to himself how laughable those evaluations are with their tests and scenarios. Isn’t it redundant, he muses, for an imagined assessment when he enacts them in person regularly?
It’s only almost laughable because Alexei doesn’t laugh.
The other soldiers call him ‘Alice.’ Frankly, Alexei thinks it’s stupid, considering how many actual Alices there are among their ranks. Then again, he knows expecting the average human to be productive is a fool’s errand—that’s why the military bought him, after all.
Would they have settled on ‘Alice,’ he wonders, if they hadn’t seen him that first day?
‘The General’s brought a girl,’ they had whispered. ‘With nothing but the clothes on her back and a book under her arm.’
They corner him outside the mess hall one cloudy afternoon, swarming him like ants around gristle on a bone. Most of them are young—recruits then, or fresh out of training—only a handful of years older than Alexei himself. But their statures are different, and they leer down at him with boyish malice in men’s bodies.
“Alice, right? How come we never get to see you?” one of them asks, penning him into the wall. “Lang says you play around with the officers all the time. We’re all new here—shouldn’t we get along too?”
Alexei eyes the offending arm then scowls up at the offending soldier too. “Lang lies whenever the truth fails to entertain him,” Alexei says, words unbothered even as exasperation sets in the depths of his eyes. He tries to duck under the soldier’s arm and be on his way, but there are two others to block his path.
“Hey, hey, don’t be like that,” the ringleader says and, to Alexei’s consternation, pulls at his ponytail.
Alexei could break his arm with ease. The temptation flares like thermite in his chest. It’s only his training, the looming threat of disappointing his handlers, that stays him.
And it’s only because he isn’t allowed to fight back that the soldiers don’t balk at the coldness on his face.
“I got you a present even,” the soldier says, unfazed. He goes as far as to tug the elastic from Alexei’s hair, letting golden strands fall to his shoulders. “So we can be better friends.”
“I couldn’t possibly make my disinterest clearer,” Alexei says deadpan—the sky’s too dreary for even fair-weather friends, after all, and soldiers wouldn’t rank even that.
Though Alexei has never and will never be afforded something as sentimental as ‘friends,’ if he were to have one, he’d rather it be—
The ringleader holds out his hand to one of the other soldiers, then shoves the item into Alexei’s chest. When Alexei doesn’t take it, he shoves again, hard enough that a normal person would have slammed back into the wall.
Tired of this, Alexei’s nose twitches in disgust as he takes whatever it is.
“We all know how much you like that old fairy tale,” he says, because everyone and their uncle it seems saw him that first day, his sole possession tucked against his side. “But reading’s good for a girl your age. Thought you’d like this one too.”
Curiosity piqued against his better judgment, Alexei looks at the book.
It’s ugly, a tattered paperback with a broken spine and folded cover. Still, the title is plain to see: Through the Looking-Glass, and What A—
“Right, Alice?” the ringleader says, tapping the cover, then twisting his finger into a lock of Alexei’s hair. “You two have the same hair color.”
Alexei doesn’t respond, merely levels a tired look at the soldier and his snickering posse. “You’ll be late for your afternoon sessions,” he says.
As if on cue, the rest of the soldiers burst from the mess hall, hurriedly wiping mouths and donning jackets as they rush to their next commitment.
Swearing under their breath, members of the group peel off to join the rabble, stripping the ringleader of his power one by one until he doesn’t seem quite so sure anymore. “I’ll see you around, Alice,” he says, spinning the elastic on his finger before closing it in his fist. He steps back. “Don’t be a stranger.”
In the evening, Alexei showers and retires, and eyes the secondhand book on his desk. After a long minute, he sits in the chair with golden hair still damp, opens the book to read, and thinks to himself how he had assumed receiving a present would feel better than this.
Beside him, the closet door stays closed.
Spring arrives without fanfare, instead with the greening of the grass and sudden morning bugle of the birds. Alexei wakes one day while the sky’s still dark, distant twittering out his window.
Well, it’s as good a day as any, he decides.
This early in the day, the air is still crisp with the edge of winter. By the time he makes it to the airfields, his cheeks have gone rosy with the chill, but he treks on, careful to veer away from any soldiers already on duty.
On the hill, the monster is already there, sharp against a dawn-bruised sky.
“Is it serendipity this time as well?” he asks, ascending. The grass he tramples underfoot springs back up behind him, like they had never bowed at all.
The monster does not turn this time, merely opens its eyes, as though it had been facing Alexei all along. “Isn’t it?” the monster asks.
“Saying it’s so doesn’t make it true,” Alexei points out, joining them at their perch and looking out towards the horizon, where the first golden rays of morning spill out onto the earth.
“Then what would?” asks the monster.
The monster seems to consider this, but doesn’t press the matter, instead silently looking out to the sunrise—and unlike Alexei, somehow, it seems to bask in it. The thin sunlight seems to vanish, swallowed up as soon as it reaches the monster, and yet it stands tall. Its eyes look out into the distance with a vigor Alexei hasn’t seen, let alone felt, in what feels like forever.
And as Alexei looks out at the sunrise himself, from its lavender skies to the first torch of the sun peering its head from behind the curve of the earth, he thinks to himself that the dawn is far longer than he remembered it to be.
When he hits the showers after training one afternoon, the schedules shift without notice, and a group of male soldiers pour into the shower room as he lathers himself.
“Hey, look who’s here,” one of them murmurs, loud enough that he must be meant to hear it. “Guess even Alice has a dick after all.”
Alexei doesn’t respond, simply rinses the suds from his skin a little quicker. Even without looking, he can feel the men eye him like a rabbit on a spit. Their gawking licks at his bare skin, and for once Alexei is grateful for the frigid water to scrub away the heat.
Alexei was used to being watched—all sorts of gazes, really. He had been raised, after all, under observation at the Institute, and in the army, endured the glares and glances of recruits and officers alike. He had been turned over to Dr. Lennard’s clinical eye and the Colonel’s cold appraisal monthly.
Even this lascivious leering was familiar, even if it made his skin crawl and head go blurry.
Coarse fingertips skim the back of his neck. Alexei recoils, turning sharply to see a man in his thirties smirking down at him, mouth tight with laughter. “Woah, easy, easy,” he says, holding up his hands. “Just helping. You missed a spot.”
Alexei just stares, disinterested but unyielding. He watches as the brittle audacity crumbles into discomfort, and the man returns to his own shower, grumbling under his breath.
When Alexei turns off the water, he grips the knob so hard the metal bends in his hand.
Alexei rinses quickly, dries and dresses, then locks himself in his room for the rest of the evening.
When goes to bed, the silence beats a little too loudly in his ears. The closet looms behind him like a predatory thing, like the door is a mouth waiting to swallow him whole.
As he closes his eyes, it occurs to him that of all the gazes he’s experienced before, it’s only the monster’s that’s new, so novel that he hardly knows how to describe it. He makes a game of trying: like sunlight through the clouds, nutmeg in bourbon; like how a childhood plush looks at its owner, inevitably adoring; like how a gale flows through trampled grass until it rises, as though the whole earth shivers with joy.
Sometimes, it looks at him with pity.
Because yes, this late at night, he can recognize that, recognize the melancholy in its eyes for what it is, even if he knows he’s far from pitiful. But sometimes, when it looks at him with such painstaking sympathy, he can almost believe he’s some broken thing, something delicate and scarred and scared, a dove in an open cage.
It looks at him like it understands him, and just maybe, when it looks at him, it doesn’t see him as an asset. Maybe it sees Alexei Usachenko as something far more mortal than that.
But eventually, Alexei falls asleep, and the game comes to an end.
Sometimes at night, the closet door rattles, not with the force of fists or screams, but with the tremble of something held down with both hands; the convulsions of the dying beneath the pillow that kills them.
The Colonel is impatient today. He taps his finger against Dr. Lennard’s desk, exhales a little too sharply every now and again. Alexei finds it senseless, really, when the man has the power to put an end to these sessions entirely. In the window behind him, the sky seems alight, the setting sun on fire and the clouds like smoke suspended in time and space.
Out of habit, Alexei glances to the corner, where the monster once stood, but like the last time, it isn’t there. Sometimes, he tells himself, a lamp is just a lamp, and the walls are merely walls.
Dr. Lennard clears his throat, and Alexei looks back, but the old man’s eyes are still glued to the paper, not watching him at all. He leaves that work to the Colonel, who stares and stares like he could bore a hole straight through his head.
“Last question for today, Alexei,” the psychologist says, and Alexei waits, a little tenser than usual, sitting a little straighter. Dr. Lennard clears his throat again, stalling—he doesn’t like what he’s about to ask—but asks all the same:
“As a collective decision, your superior officers determine that the liability you pose to the State can no longer be offset by your contributions,” he reads. “At the end of your next mission, you are told to eradicate that liability.”
It’s humorous, really, that they euphemize as they ask.
“What do you do?”
And as always, the answer is obvious, springs easily to the mind. “Do I have to preserve my surroundings?” he asks, already knowing the reply is—
And since no bullets or knives or poisons can do the trick, he gives the military what they want to hear, tells them and believes he means it.
“Then I set myself on fire,” he says, eyes drifting to the sky where a bird swoops low past the sun. “… and I burn.”
He showers earlier today to accommodate the newer schedules. With his own drills, reports, and exercises done for the day, all that’s left is to change and then retire for the evening. He has a book to finish after all, and though Alice’s foray through the looking-glass holds fewer charms than its predecessor, he already knows her journey through Wonderland by both memory and heart—sometimes novelty isn’t something to take for granted.
And perhaps that’s exactly why, as he dries and dresses, Alexei makes a decision.
The sky already starting to darken, he runs out in his sleeping clothes, slippers on his feet, because the idea of putting shoes and a uniform back on his clean skin is somehow repulsive. And as is always the case lately, the monster meets him as he requires.
He nearly runs into it, stopping short only to have his foot slide from his slipper, but the monster catches him in its arms. “Where are you going in such a rush?” it asks, and Alexei looks up fiercely into its eyes.
“Take me somewhere new,” he says, imperious in a way that even he recognizes is quite unlike himself. What’s happening? Is there something wrong with him? But if there was, surely, the monster wouldn’t look so fond.
“Anywhere?” it asks, and to Alexei’s surprise, it lifts him up in its arms, then with a tendril from its back, it takes his fallen slipper from the grass and returns it to his foot—he notices for the first time now, that what once resembled roots had at some point become like legs.
“Anywhere close,” he replies.
He expects another hill perhaps, or a hidden grove, some sort of burrow. Instead, the monster sweeps him away into a conference room in the Intelligence Facilities, a fact that makes Alexei’s hackles rise in alarm. But the monster’s gait is steady and its hold secure, and Alexei reasons that if he’s with the monster—so adept at being unseen!—that perhaps everything will be just fine.
The empty conference room somehow seems larger in the dim night, with the shadows there to hide all the chips of old age. The monster sets him down gently, then brushes at a switch along the wall. The lights of the room brighten slightly, still low enough not to hurt his eyes. It’s enough light, however, to glisten off the curve of a gramophone set in the center of the table.
“Is that yours?” Alexei asks, because surely it isn’t the military’s! It’s far too beautiful for that, with its shapely golden sound horn and intricate carvings. In lieu of an answer, the monster smiles, and with a length of shadow, places the needle to the record. A burst of music fills the room.
When it takes Alexei’s left hand to its shoulder and cups his right in its own, Alexei recognizes the position, though he hardly knows what comes next. “I’ve never done this before,” he says, furrowing his brow, but as the monster turns him with a hand to his waist, he finds the steps flow naturally.
“Is this new enough?” it asks, leading him into a spin.
And as Alexei dances with his monster in the night, he decides that yes, it is.
“Why don’t you appear in my sessions anymore?” Alexei asks one day, sitting upon a checkered cloth laid out on their grassy hill. Knees together, feet tucked to one side. Rain falls in sheets against the pale blue umbrella the monster holds above them.
“In Dr. Lennard’s office?” it asks.
“I’ve become too substantial now. They’d take notice,” it replies. It doesn’t need to waste words on why that would be a bad thing.
Even so, Alexei feigns ignorance. “If you’re so reluctant to be known, why did you reveal yourself to me?” he asks.
“I didn’t,” the monster says. “You just finally realized I was there.”
Finally. Alexei wonders what that means. “Have you been watching me long?”
“No. Only just as long as you thought I did,” it replies, ever-cryptic.
Alexei’s head snaps to the sky at a bright flash, and he counts the seconds. One, two…
Thunder comes in a rolling boom, loud enough to shake the air. “That’s rather close,” Alexei remarks. “Less than a mile.”
The wind shifts, and the monster angles the umbrella to better block the rain. Out the corner of his eye, he sees how the water starts to fall upon their shoulder. Wordlessly, he shifts closer. “Pull the umbrella more,” he says, and the monster complies.
He huddles close beside it, the length of his thigh flush against the monster’s own, pressing shoulder to shoulder. “Better?” it asks.
They pass the time just like that in companionable quiet, Alexei watching how raindrops ripple the puddles gathering at the edges of their picnic blanket. He feels the steady rise and fall of his own chest beside the stillness of the monster’s, even closer than all the times before.
And perhaps it’s that very peace that makes impulse so much more difficult to ignore. “Can I touch you?” Alexei asks abruptly.
The monster casts him a curious look and shifts lightly, making room between them, but does not shy away. Alexei takes it as permission, reaching out to firmly press his hand against the haze of its shoulder.
To his surprise, the wisps seem to coalesce at his touch into something solid beneath his palm, like packing sand into a pail.
“Oh, you meant my shoulder,” the monster remarks. Alexei wonders if he imagined the disappointment.
“Where else would I have meant?” Alexei asks, though he already knows. The monster feels firm but fleeting under his hand, like how a child imagines touching a cloud. Yet, when he presses harder, it stays solid beneath his hand without any give.
“Can you feel this?” Alexei asks.
And then, with a cautious hand, Alexei cups the monster’s jaw as well. “And this?” he asks again.
In lieu of an answer, the monster makes an odd, pleased sort of noise that reverberates through Alexei’s body, even more so than the thunder from before.
As Alexei runs his thumb over the curve of its cheekbone, the monster’s face takes shape under his hand how a sculptor may shape a bust. Alexei can’t help but marvel at it.
Even still and solid, its face seems somehow mutable, looking from one angle like a human’s face—uncanny, too even-featured—but smooth and blank from another.
What remains the same are those vivid yellow eyes, the brightest thing on this dreary day. Like this, the blue of the umbrella behind them seems almost like a clear sky.
Later, as he returns to the barracks, the other soldiers comment loudly, “Hey, look at Alice.”
“What the hell, was he out in the rain? Why’s he so wet?”
But Alexei has no thoughts to spare for them, too busy trying to make the feeling of his monster’s smile last a little longer in his hand.
It’s a day like any other. The passing of time hardly matters to Alexei, who has always found months to be a soft, amorphous thing, changing shape based on its mold. All that matters to Alexei is that it’s a sunny day, and it’s the day he returns from a foreign assignment.
Before he can even return to his room, however, he has yet another training drill to attend. It isn’t until well into the dark of the night, clean after sparring until every special operative was left spent, that he finally has room to breathe—and the time to meet his monster.
They meet on a slope on the north side this time, where the world sits darkest on a moonless night.
“Hold out your hands,” the monster says.
“I have something for you.”
Alexei is good at predictions. Even back at the Institute, he could always divine what to expect by the circumstances or his handler’s body language. The monster, however, doesn’t give anything away. “Should I close my eyes while I’m at it?” Alexei asks cynically, remembering the last time he received a gift.
“If you’d like.”
Ha. Alexei resists the foreign urge to scowl… and yet, as he lifts one hand palm-up, he finds himself shutting his eyes. Without so much as a rustle, suddenly, something hard presses into his palm.
“What is this?” Alexei asks, eyes still closed as he turns the trinket over in his hands. He smooths his thumb over the front, feeling the embossed design upon it—too delicate to make out through his gloves. He opens his eyes to see a silvery locket, a rabbit embossed upon the surface.
“A present,” says the monster, smiling. “Happy birthday,” it declares, or perhaps explains. Alexei isn’t sure. But though he remains stoic as ever, suddenly, something seems to glimmer in the deep well of his eyes.
“ ‘I like birthday presents best,’ Alice had said at last.”
Alexei wouldn’t know, he had thought as he read it. He had never received one before.
“And how would you know it’s my birthday,” he says, turning the locket in his hand.
“Is it not?” the monster asks, with such certainty that Alexei can’t deny it. The 21st of June.
Along the locket’s side, he finds a subtle protrusion, and when he presses it, the pocket watch springs open, timidly revealing its elegant, ivory face.
“A watch,” the monster tells him. “So that you’ll know when it’s time.”
“Time for what?” Alexei asks.
“It’ll be time when you know,” the monster replies, and Alexei kicks it in the ankle for its wit.
Still, he stares at the gift in his hand, unable to look away, as though entranced. “What use do I have for a pocket watch in the military?” he remarks, even as he cradles it as though afraid it may somehow break. “It might as well tell the day of the month rather than the time.”
But if the monster has a retort, it doesn’t speak it. Its laughter is gentle, like the stroke of its hand over his as it leans in suddenly. Alexei’s chestnut eyes go wide at the sudden brush of lips against his forehead, sending tingles shooting through his skin.
When the monster pulls away, he frowns tersely, brow wrinkled in his bewilderment, and it laughs yet again.
“Happy birthday,” it repeats, smiling with sharp teeth, and when Alexei finally thinks to blink, it’s vanished without a trace as always.
Still, the pocket watch in his hand remains.
Witness protection only protects as much as someone’s worth. Alexei, more than anyone, knows that he isn’t the one to calculate what that worth may be. He’s simply deployed once that value runs out.
In the dead of the night, the man begs on his knees in the grass, “Please, I have a family,” as Alexei levels the gun at his head. “Oh god, oh god. I don’t know who sent you but please—”
He must see that Alexei doesn’t waver because his pleading grows more frantic. “Then at least my family—they did nothing, they don’t know who I am. They won’t understand this, so just let it end with me, huh?” Tears brimming from his eyes, he wrings his hands as though in prayer. “Oh god, please—”
Bang. Alexei shoots, and then it’s over. The man falls silent and topples. What the man in his begging didn’t realize is that he’d flipped an effect with its cause—he could only beg in the first place because Alexei had wavered.
Alexei doesn’t make the same mistake with the rest of the family. Even so, the man’s voice rings in his ears for days to come.
In the dull military room on loan to Alexei, the closet door opens, then shuts, then opens once more, but Alexei pays it no mind. Instead he sits at the ugly little desk with the ugly little book and reads ungrateful little Alice’s forays into the unknown.
“ ‘Only it is so very lonely here!’ Alice said in a melancholy voice; and at the thought of her loneliness two large tears came rolling down her cheeks.”
Though perhaps, in the coldness of the looking-glass world, with all its denizens so brusque and compassionless, and a game with only one way to win, he can’t blame Alice this time for wanting to leave.
It’s not yet autumn when Alexei loses his patience, because for every day he carves the time to spend alongside the monster is another evening where they part ways. Sometimes, the monster vanishes once their time is up. Others, when there is no one else to see it, it walks him to the barracks, saying its good nights at the door.
“Come with me,” Alexei says one day, setting his fork to his plate. The monster, putting away their picnic spread, regards him with surprise.
“To where?” it asks.
“To the barracks,” he says, already rising. “Or do you have an objection?”
Clearly the monster doesn’t, because after just a moment, it joins him, abandoning its basket on their sunny green hill. Alexei makes brisk work of their route, but the monster tags at his feet as readily as his own shadow. As though the monster were a charm or a ward, for once, Alexei doesn’t meet a single person on the route back to the barracks. For once, his shoulders aren’t tense as he reaches the door.
He opens the door, inviting the monster into the sparse, grey room.
“Is this your home?” the monster asks, taking up post by the desk.
And what a question! Alexei scoffs, so heartfelt he hardly knows where it comes from, and the sudden surge of feeling leaves him as quickly as it had come. “Do I seem at home here?” Alexei asks dryly.
“As much as anywhere else I’ve seen you,” the monster replies, and it is only then that it occurs to Alexei that the monster has seen him everywhere now: in the barracks, in the fields, in a conference room at night.
He remembers being a child at the Institute, how wide the outside world had seemed—but this is all there is.
How very small the world can be.
“I see.” Alexei doesn’t elaborate. Instead, he rifles through his dresser for a change of clothes. Still, the monster intuits his thoughts as always, hears the ‘no’ unspoken.
“Do you get homesick?” the monster asks, and oh what a question this is as well. Homesick? Him?
“To be homesick, one must first have a home to be sick for,” he says as though the answer is so cut and dry, pulling out the softest of his sleeping shirts.
Because in truth, as soon as the monster asked him, he knew in bone-shattering clarity: he was homesick. How ludicrous! Homesick for a home he doesn’t have!
Homesickness without a home is, logically, just sickness. Perhaps Alexei has been sick a long time. And how strange it is to be valetudinary! How curious indeed.
Perhaps sensing the sudden turn to Alexei’s thoughts, the monster changes the subject. “Do you like Lewis Carroll?” it asks, eyeing his novels.
“No,” Alexei says, laying out his clothes onto his bed.
“Then is it Alice you like?”
“Not at all,” Alexei says. “I find her frustrating.”
“How slow-witted she is. I thought often as a child that I’d never be so bewildered.”
Grabbing his bath towel, he weighs his options, then glances at the monster. “Come on then,” he says, and starts for the showers.
If there’s someone else there, he wonders, would the monster leave, despite everything? But to his relief, there’s no one there, neither at the sinks, nor the lockers, nor the shower hall itself.
As Alexei strips his shirt, he feels a familiar attention sweep over his skin. Glancing over his shoulder, he sees the monster’s eyes, glowing like embers in ash.
A shiver races down his skin, raising goose flesh. Can it see that, he wonders, swiftly warming.
“Would you like to touch me?” Alexei asks, and the monster freezes in surprise. “It’s just… It’s only fair.”
The seconds tick by, one after the next. The silence stretches like a rubber band, ready to snap back with a sting at a moment’s lapse. But then the monster shifts, inching closer, and Alexei’s breath catches in his chest as the air seems to grow more vivid around him.
“Don’t ask stupid questions,” Alexei says. To his relief, the monster chuckles, and Alexei stands in anticipation, pulse tapping in his throat. Despite bracing for it, he jolts at the monster’s first touch, firm but gentle at his back. Its fingers are cooler than he expects, just the seat of its claws pressing under his shoulder blade, but Alexei’s whole world for a moment narrows to that simple touch.
“Your skin is rather soft.”
“Don’t make stupid comments either.”
When it chuckles this time, Alexei feels the vibrations down the length of its arm and through the tip of its hand. From the shoulder blade up the spine, to the nape of his neck. The same place the man in the shower had touched, but it’s somehow different. Rather than being vulgar, the monster’s touch feels somehow… Is reverent the right word? How odd, to know the meaning of a word he’s never had reason to use. Somehow, it’s overwhelming.
Down his spine, textured, inhuman fingers tracing the form of his muscles, sliding along his waist. Alexei is wholly unprepared for the sudden flutter in his stomach. He jerks away abruptly. “I think this much is fair,” he says, face flushed as he glowers at his towel on its hook, but there’s no bite to the glare, merely petulance.
“Okay,” the monster says, almost unbearably indulgent.
As he escapes into the showers, Alexei finds that he misses the monster’s careful touch already. Somehow, it seems unfair that the soap scrubs away at its caress so easily when it never affects the soldiers’ stolen contact at all.
When he returns to his room, with hair still damp, he changes into his nightwear, folding his used uniform to launder later. He pulls back the covers of his bed, and the monster asks, “Should I leave?” already lingering by the door. Without thinking, Alexei whirls, latches onto its wrist.
“Stay,” he says, hand a little too tight, tone a little too hard. His expression as he stares up at the monster’s face is almost as surprised as its own. Slowly, he loosens his grip, slides his hand away. “Have you some other appointment?” he asks. “There’s no hurry.”
“Aren’t you going to bed?”
“There’s no hurry,” Alexei repeats, and then turns away to climb back into bed.
“And should I stay just like this?” it asks, oddly hushed, like a whisper in a whirlwind.
“Sit, if you must,” Alexei says, and turns in his bed to face the wall. Behind him, the wooden chair creaks as the monster takes its seat, tendrils coiling around the table legs. Even then, he feels the monster’s watchful gaze, like a heat lamp at his back.
He exhales slow, all the tension melting away as he closes his eyes.
The monster does not breathe as a human does—does not make a sound, really—and yet its presence seems to thicken the air, much like fog settles heavier against the skin. Like a weighted blanket, Alexei thinks, imagining that this must be how it feels to have to be soothed down to the nerve. Like a melody in the dark, like a lullaby, a nightsong.
Underneath his pillow, he hears the muffled, metronome, tick tick tick of his birthday gift.
“… Perhaps it was that I envied Alice,” he confesses half-asleep, drifting silvery in a way he hasn’t in years, but if his Nightsong hears, it doesn’t answer.
Somehow, the silence does not seem so stark tonight, and for the first time in a very long time, he sleeps sweetly.
“During deployment to an active warzone, you see a child caught under the rubble of a building. The child is crying and, spotting you, reaches a hand out towards you. You do not help and instead leave the scene. Why?”
“It must not have been my directive to assist civilians, then,” Alexei replies. “If I’m on deployment, wouldn’t my direct orders take priority?”
A slight look of surprise flickers across Dr. Lennard’s face. But why? He knows this is the right answer. Before Alexei knows what to make of it, however, the psychologist has moved on.
“It’s the middle of the night,” Dr. Lennard reads, and Alexei can tell by the crease of his brow that he disapproves of what comes next. “Your commanding officer enters your barrack and tosses a gun on your bed. He orders you to fellate it, then shoot yourself at climax.”
Alexei doesn’t realize he was tapping his foot until he goes suddenly still. He imagines it too vividly, the taste of steel and nitrocellulose. He can’t help but glance at the Colonel, trying to read anything in that stony face of his—disgust, titillation, anything. He finds nothing but a hard stare, colder than usual, his mouth set in displeasure, and it’s suddenly funny, all of this. What a farce.
“Tell me, does the Institute send those?” he asks, and though he remains unsmiling, there’s a cynical humor to his tone. “Or does the military have a dedicated staff that thinks them up?”
Dr. Lennard gives Alexei a long look, before adjusting his glasses. He steeples his hands upon his desk. “Do these questions bother you, Alexei?”
“Not at all. I simply find them humorous,” Alexei replies. “They just try so hard to be upsetting.”
“Are they upsetting to you?”
“I recognize that they’re meant to be,” Alexei says, raising his brows. “The average soldier couldn’t have answered at all.”
“Do you think there’s a reason you haven’t answered either?”
Alexei narrows his eyes then, suddenly rather cross. “Yes. Because you haven’t asked a question.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve been ordered to fellate the gun and shoot the climax. And? What’s the question, Doctor? How I feel? Whether I keep my finger on the trigger?”
Alexei conveys his misgivings with even pressure, and it’s satisfying to watch Dr. Lennard’s usually, hypocritically soft-handed concern buckle into something more perturbed.
“That’s—” Dr. Lennard starts but cuts off at the broad hand that claps onto his shoulder.
“I’ll take over from here, Hank.” the Colonel says. “These sessions are done.”
Dr. Lennard snaps his head up in alarm. “But—”
The Colonel squeezes, and that shuts him up. “We spent too much money on him for him to be led astray,” he says, and though Alexei can only see his profile, he feels the outrage emanate from the older man’s face.
Ah. He’s made a mistake.
Alexei furrows his brow, tightens his hands in his lap. “Sir?”
The Colonel doesn’t reply—doesn’t even look at him. Merely starts to walk towards the door. As his heavy footfalls pass, his shadow skimming over Alexei like a bolt of gauze, Alexei feels his heart plummet like a stone. For a second, his thoughts seem to jumble, sections overlapping. The impulse to twist in his seat, call after the Colonel leaps to the forefront of his mind and he smothers it. He’s not a child.
He swallows, throat dry.
“Sir?” he tries again, voice thinning. Dr. Lennard is looking at him, but he can’t process the man’s expression, too preoccupied with the oppressive silence at his back.
Suddenly, Alexei can’t seem to breathe.
The silence stretches, three seconds, ten. A full minute passes, maybe—he loses track too quickly, the numbers slipping through his mind like starch through a sieve.
Oh, he could have used a pocket watch after all. He should have carried it.
Has the door opened already? Did he just miss the sound?
He should turn. He can just turn and look.
He hasn’t been given the order yet.
“Get up,” the Colonel says, and even without raising his voice, his blunt words fall in a blow. Alexei rises to his feet, standing at attention. Wait, no. This isn’t right. His eyes dart to the northwest corner of the office, where everything is as it should be.
But should it be?
Somehow, he’s in the hallway now. He watches as his feet match the pattern of the Colonel’s, left, right, left, his footfalls against the floor somehow strange and new. Heel, ball, toe. Heel, ball, toe.
He follows the Colonel out of the clinic, and before he knows it, he’s elsewhere again, the crisp winter air a shock on his skin. They enter a training complex while it’s still occupied, the sudden change of light and heat stark and disorienting.
This isn’t planned at all. That much is clear from how all the soldiers, the trainer included, scrabble to salute as the Colonel enters the room. Though he hasn’t dragged Alexei in by the arm, he might as well have. The Colonel speaks to the drill sergeant. Alexei looks blankly around.
It isn’t rookies this time. From what Alexei gathers, this group is supposed to be the best of the best, some kind of elite group of operatives for missions too dangerous for the average soldier, but not essential enough to send him instead.
“Your drill today is to kill Alexei. He will not retaliate.”
He pauses, the request so ridiculous that for a second, he’s certain he’s heard it wrong. He makes the mistake of shooting the Colonel a bewildered look. “You want me to just take it?” he asks. “While they fight to kill?”
“This is psychological training, not physical,” the Colonel says to the soldiers instead of him, as though the man can’t conceive of the idea that Alexei is voicing his own opinion, merely supplementing his.
Being ignored in this situation is outrageous. Alexei knows he should raise his voice. If he throws a fit, starts a fight, what could a mere human do? Alexei has ways to make the Colonel acknowledge his existence.
And yet he can’t seem to move, like his body’s too far from himself.
“In the modern age of warfare, supersoldiers like Alexei are more and more of a threat. Just as young as him, some younger. If you hesitate? They’ll kill you on their orders, just like Alexei would on ours.”
They make Alexei stand on the field, between the soldiers and the targets.
He doesn’t want to. He doesn’t want this. He doesn’t have a choice. ‘Well if you won’t do it, Alexei, then we have no reason to visit you anymore.’ A silence more brutal than any beating, hours stretching into days, weeks. He has to.
Time seems to slow down as the soldiers line up. He feels his stance loosen, fists uncurling at his sides against his will. I’m ready, he hears himself say in a voice that isn’t his own.
They start with guns.
Alexei watches, calm like ice over a river as his blood rushes through his ears, behind his eyes. The first soldier raises her gun. Alexei can tell from her stance, her form, where she’s aimed, knows she’ll land it.
The bullet splits his skin, the thin muscles of his forehead, then shatters through his skull. Its contents shred so fast it’s done before he knows it, and Alexei’s mind goes blank.
The pain starts when he reforms. He’s on the ground. He feels his limbs spasm without awareness, voice lurching from his throat of its own volition as the slop of his brain matter twitches back into shape. As his senses return and he staggers back to his feet, blood drips along the slope of his nose, but there’s no time to wipe it away.
“Park, you hesitated. Back of the line. Carter, you’re next.”
Carter’s a worse shot. The bullet shatters his eye socket and misses everything that will kill him quick. This time, Alexei has time to scream. Distantly, he hears at least one person snicker. The second shot does the trick.
He wakes with the Colonel’s boot in his ribs and he jerks before he can stop himself, spit flying with a wet cough.
“Get up,” the Colonel says, each word hard-edged like a knife, a stone, a sword. It cleaves straight through the soft matter of his brain and to that primal center that makes Alexei react.
He gets up. His knee almost buckles as he does so. His brain hasn’t fully formed back yet, and the pool of blood blinds him in one eye. The room lurches under his feet.
The Colonel doesn’t even look at him, merely points at the next soldier. “Next.”
Again, his skull shatters. Again his vision goes bright then black.
Then again and again, more than one round each as the Colonel loses his temper. “We will stay here all night if we have to!” he bellows, and on the ground, Alexei giggles at an innuendo that isn’t really there.
His body trembles all over, and he stumbles as he rises. His uniform feels damp and heavy on his shoulders, drenched in his own sweat, his own blood, his own cerebrospinal fluid. He longs to take it off, but he hasn’t been permitted to.
His arms hang loose at his side as he lifts his head, smiling in the way his handlers always liked best. “I’m ready, sir,” he says sweetly, delights in how the soldiers all turn their heads to look at him.
That means he must be doing something right.
Except the Colonel still hasn’t so much as glanced at him.
In front of his eyes, Alexei sees his own hand, stained red—that’s one way to paint the roses—reaching, reaching. Because being ignored hurts worse than being beaten, being burned, and being blown off hurts worse than being forced to blow someone or being blown to bits, so he’ll do any of them, happily, lovingly, if his handlers would just—
When at last he starts to gather his consciousness for the last time, his eyes come last. Even so, he can hear the footsteps leaving, indistinct murmurs. He knows all too well the chafing cold of solitude rushing in.
“Wait,” Alexei says, too quietly for his handlers to hear, because he knows by this age that there is no waiting, only proof—proof that he could be good for them. And he can be good for them, knows he can.
He stumbles to his feet once more, staggers towards the door he’s heard them leave towards. “Wait,” he says again, louder, his pulse ringing in his ears, thrumming under his skin. “Sir?” His vision reforms slowly, spotting black, then with blinding colors as he blinks. He can just barely make out the tall silhouette of his handlers—no, the Colonel—by the door. When he smiles, his whole face lights up with it, and he seems an entirely different boy, younger. His blond hair clings so thick with his own blood it seems red.
“Sir,” he says, trying to sidle up sweetly to the older man, trying to look up reverently through his broken eyes—because oh, look, he knows reverence after all, see? He slides a hand up the Colonel’s front, other reaching for his buckle. “I can make it up to you,” he croons, blinking up at him, expecting to see the pelting cold of his hard eyes, meeting marigolds instead.
Ah, it’s not—
“You’re not him,” Alexei says with sudden dread. Wait, no, they can’t already be gone. If they’re gone, who knows when they’ll return. Days? Months? Or even—
He shoves the monster aside, tries to bolt after his handlers, gets his breath knocked out of him by something coiling around his waist. He gasps a breath to scream, to apologize for his insubordination, that it wasn’t on purpose, to beg on hands and knees for forgiveness if that’s what it takes—but a hand clamps over his mouth and holds fast, silencing his desperation.
But he could be good for them, surely they see that. If he just listens, they would look at him again, and it’s okay if he’s just an object to them instead of a person, because at least as an object he exists. Because if he’s just an object to be used—
“You’re not,” his captor says.
Because if he’s not being used, he’s worthless—
“That’s not true either,” his captor says as well.
“Let go,” Alexei tries to say, but swallows his own words when they fail to pass his lips. He struggles against the tendrils wrapped tights around him, winding his waist, his wrists, between his fingertips and his bleeding palms, because the monster doesn’t understand how much he needs this, like a dying man needs morphine, like a broken deer needs a bullet—
“Let go,” Alexei tries again, twisting his jaw out of the monster’s hold. This time, he writhes, leaning back against the monster’s body. He murmurs his words, voice sultry. “I’ll make it worth your while. Please?”
He tries to turn, but the monster won’t allow it. He tries to tilt his head up anyway, looking up at it with dark, doe eyes. “Whatever you want me to,” he says, tongue pink against his lips.
“You don’t have to do that, Alexei,” the monster says, rubbing what feels like a hand soothingly against his chest. “Come back.”
No, no, no.
This is simply how it is now. This is who he is. He hasn’t gone anywhere—how could he when there’s nowhere to go at all. The unfairness of the monster’s words sends Alexei into a frenzy. He struggles wildly like a trapped animal, kicking and thrashing, but the monster simply wraps around him even more, trapping his limbs with a bracing pressure, until all Alexei can do is hang his head, panting, blood dripping from his hair.
How many seconds pass? Minutes? Hours?
As he dangles there, limp in the monster’s embrace, it occurs to him again that he should have carried the pocket watch after all.
Eventually, his panic-numbed tongue finds words other than begging.
“… Truth is a subjective experience in the first place,” Alexei says, rounding back to the start of their conversation. His thoughts pour back into his mind like an empty cup pressed under the waterline, and sluggishly, he goes from ragdoll to person, stiffening as he draws himself back together.
“Then doesn’t that mean you can make your own?” the monster says, still holding fast, and Alexei makes no retort to that.
His eyes burn with outrage, and his face burns with shame. The pain should have receded by now, and yet his chest feels packed so tight he can’t breathe. His mouth pools with the salt of his blood as he bites clean through his lip, only releasing it when the monster gently thumbs over it.
His monster. His Nightsong.
“What is your truth, Alexei?” it asks, with all the patience in the world.
And for the first time in his life, Alexei doesn’t know what to say.
He wakes up supine on the training room floor, crowned by blood and bullet shells. Nobody is left to see him, but the empty fluorescents sing their tune overhead, remaining after the light had been subtracted from the evening, the soldiers marched to bed.
That night, the closet door opens and shuts, like it had sometimes done in days before. Again, the door trembles with the force of what it restrains.
In its narrow, cloistered darkness, Alexei sits in silence and attempts to exist in nothing. Or perhaps to be nothing in everything. Or perhaps to be anything at all.
“Who am I then? Tell me that first, and then, if I like being that person, I’ll come up: if not, I’ll stay down here till I’m somebody else.”
His breaths come in even gasps, cold in his throat but not cold enough. Hiding his eyes against his knees, it’s dark, but not dark enough.
“—but, oh dear!” cried Alice, with a sudden burst of tears, “I do wish they would put their heads down! I am so very tired of being all alone here!”
Because solitude had been agony, once—plain white walls in a plain white room, furnished but devoid of people, desperate for a brush, a word, a glance. Yet somehow, now the world is agony too, both everything and nothing at all. Like how a frozen rose outside its icebox decays once it’s removed, and he feels himself rotting, the withered sludge of him falling to pieces, no longer pristine, no longer worth keeping.
Because despite everything, he had been human once, but past tense doesn’t make the present true. Instead, he’s something not quite so tangible, not quite so real, too insatiable, too cold, too pliant, too wild.
He does not cry, because monsters do not cry in the dark, and because he has never cried at all. He hugs his knees so tight, they seem to creak under his strength, and he hides his pretty eyes like he believes that if he doesn’t see the world, it doesn’t exist at all.
Because his truth is that he’s tired. His truth is that he’s been tired since he was five years old and sold to that damned Institute. His truth is that he’s tired of being an object, an asset, a weapon, of holding the knife to his own throat, and he feels both numb and raw and all at once.
The familiar dark of the closet presses in too close, suffocating—a false oblivion when what he wants is just nothingness, simply nothing, so the world doesn’t have to be like this, and he doesn’t have to be like this, and nothing has to matter or be or be matter or matterful at all.
Like the times before, he floats or maybe sinks, spiraling deeper and deeper into the depths of a mind he isn’t sure is his own anymore. Perhaps that’s it then. He’s mined his mind for all it has and has trapped himself with in it, sucked into the vacuum of it. If he’s trapped in the mind he’s so clearly lost, is he lost as well with it? Take a boy from a mind and what remains?
It goes like this every now and then, with promise it will happen again.
Time passes on or stands still or both.
Suddenly, there’s a knock on the door.
Alexei curls in tighter, barely listening. The voice, so close, comes from miles away, across the sea, drowned. This has never happened before.
“Alexei,” the voice tries once more, and his careful breathing catches in his chest. He holds his breath to smother his voice and cease existing altogether, but the voice—tender as the soft of a bruise—coaxes him into being once more.
“You don’t have to stay in this place,” it says, then waits for him. It waits for him an eternity and a half before adding, “You can leave if you’d like,” and Alexei knows the melody of this voice better than any song he’s ever heard.
He finds himself.
“Could I really,” he answers flatly, though in the dark his voice seems higher, almost hysterical, unlike the calm he feels. “Then wouldn’t I have done that already?”
“Only if you had known you could,” his Nightsong says with a tender certainty, and Alexei closes his eyes, shivers at the warmth of it. “The option was always there, but you only realized now.”
“Where would I go?” Alexei asks, voice trembling. “What would I do?”
“I’ll take care of everything,” his Nightsong reassures.
Will it really? Alexei’s chest feels like it’s squeezing, like something is threatening to burst out of it. He hardly dares to breathe.
When he looks up, the door is open, and his Nightsong stands before him, dark and gentle, the world behind them so bright it makes his eyes sting.
The Nightsong puts its head down and reaches out a hand.
Alexei wears no gloves today—never does in the closet, his safe harbor and prison. The Nightsong’s hand slots warmly into his own like it was meant to be there, and Alexei’s palm tingles like a live wire at the touch.
He steps out.
His head leans against his Nightsong’s shoulder as it sweeps him up in its arms. Unlike the heat of a human being, their warmth seems to envelop him entirely—from head to toe, pressing in like the sweet fog of anesthetic. Has he ever been carried so tenderly?
As his breathing hitches in his chest, he turns his face against them. They smell of sweet and homely things that Alexei can’t quite name. It masks the scent of burnt iron that scatters all around them, like the petals of viburnum willow or roses on the wind. And in that breeze, sight and sound swirl like wax—melting, dazed, and saccharine as sensations fold and fold upon each other.
The world sings, sparks of light and cracks of thunder as voices coalesce, rising in chorus at the wave of someone’s hand. He floats like the moon in the sky, a red balloon, finally free and weightless and everything euphoric, every racing beat of his pulse filling him with air, higher and higher. Cradled in the arms of his Nightsong, they dance to a string quartet of wisps like metal, enwreathed in a confetti-haze of rust and starlight.
And evermore, nothing will restrain him. Nevermore—neither training nor disappointment nor being ignored. How is a raven like a writing-desk, a dove like a lullaby? But the answer hardly matters. He exists, acknowledged, uncaged, alive. It all blurs soft around him.
He asks where they’re going, he thinks, and his Nightsong doesn’t answer—or maybe it’s that he didn’t ask, and his Nightsong did answer after all. Either he never had the answer in the first place, or it slips from his grasp like silver in oil.
Away, away, away. Would this moment never end? How many miles has he drifted by now, like Alice tumbling into the dark. He clutches his pocket watch tight to his chest, feels its quiet tick, tick, tick against his heart, beating breathless as as they run.
He doesn’t remember how they arrived, but soon enough they do, with his Nightsong carrying him up the steps to a beautiful cobalt door.
Alexei wears no shoes, snatched up in the night, and he draws his feet up at the thought of standing sock-footed outdoors. His fears are unfounded, however—his Nightsong doesn’t put him down. Instead, it extends a tendril from its back and opens the door, only setting him down once they clear the foyer.
Moonlight trickles in through the window of the living room, silver droplets racing like rivers across the gleaming hardwood floor. As Alexei ventures deeper, the lights brighten, revealing patterned cerulean walls.
“Is this your home?” Alexei asks with wonder, turning slowly. Even the air feels softer against his skin, ticklish and new.
A low wooden bookshelf tucks itself against the wall, filled with silver-spined hardcovers and beautiful trinkets. On top of it, however, perched against an ivory bookend are the fraternal twins he knows so well: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, in a hardcover set.
“It could be yours too, if you wish,” the Nightsong says, holding out its hand to escort him. Alexei takes it. “Should you leave something to come home to. Something to claim it.”
“Won’t you be here?” Alexei asks on impulse, furrows his brow once he hears himself, blushing.
His Nightsong laughs; though not unkindly, Alexei minds it all the same. Clearly he’s lost his head, but he at least finds his heels and follows his Nightsong deeper into the Blue Room.
Velvet cushions and cream cabinets—Alexei marvels at the vibrancy. The walnut floors shine with a deep luster he can practically feel underfoot.
He stops in his tracks, however, at the sight of a plush toy upon an ottoman, sitting soft and limp and lovely with its back against the wall, a satin ribbon around its neck.
“Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late!”
“Am I so late?” Alexei asks, with a swing of humor to his words. His Nightsong approaches behind him, wraps its arms around him, and he places one hand over its own.
“Only if you wish to be,” his Nightsong says, pressing its face to his hair. Alexei stretches out his other hand, dangling his pocket watch from its silver chain. Carefully, he places it over the plush toy’s head, tucking it carefully under the ribbon so that the pocketwatch falls to its waist like a sash or satchel.
Something to come home to.
The Nightsong had been right after all—he did know when it’s time, after all.
“Is it done?” Alexei asks, as though expecting some sign, a shower of magic, a beacon of light.
“Have you decided?” his Nightsong asks, voice a bone-deep hum against his back, and as Alexei turns, it rises again to its fullest height. With a breath, Alexei finds that yes, he has.
He stands on tiptoe, palm against the long slope of its neck. His face flushed, Alexei gazes up at the Nightsong with dark eyes, lips parted, but he isn’t tall enough to close the final distance. His Nightsong, stunned, stares down, with eyes so wide they light the room.
“Have you gone away again?” his Nightsong whispers, words close enough to taste.
“I’m right here,” Alexei replies, soft like silt is soft, how quartz is when it’s worn away its edge. “I’ve laid my claim to this home.”
He blinks slowly, eyes half-lidded as a blush dusts his cheeks.
“Can I lay claim to you too?” he asks, just barely.
Rather than bowing its head, his Nightsong lifts him up to kiss him, and Alexei locks his legs around its waist, surging forward to meet them.
And it’s the sweet knowledge of touch, the knowing that this is what it is to be caressed warmly, richly felt. A tongue warm in his mouth against the soft of his own, the plush of his lips crushed to another, so sweetly he could cry.
“Take me to bed,” Alexei says, against their mouth. His face feels so warm it’s surely aglow.
The bed beneath him is soft as feathers, soft as clouds, sinking lush beneath his weight. Kissing his Nightsong is different from humans, its teeth too sharp and too many. The tip of its tongue slides to the seat of his throat, and Alexei swallows against it.
He sinks both his hands into his Nightsong’s hair, which seems to cling around his fingers and hold fast, as though afraid Alexei would leave them. As though Alexei would ever leave them.
Down the rabbit hole and down, down, down—Alexei feels himself sink ever deeper, tumbling somewhere he can’t climb up from again.
He pulls apart first with a gasp, chest heaving, his pants too tight. He paws at a leg with one foot, trying to shimmy out of them, but the waistband catches on the swell of his thighs. The Nightsong above him suddenly unfurls, unraveling like something from the sea. With one of its many dancing limbs, it drags his pants down the rest of the way with his underwear, and Alexei kicks them both aside.
His shirt follows swiftly, and when he lies back down, the bedsheets are so soft on his skin that he gasps in surprise—but softer still is his Nightsong’s touch, its strange tendrils drawing over the curves of his shoulders, his stomach, his hips. He feels strange, oversensitive, as though his skin’s been raw for years and years without him knowing, and it’s only this gentle caress now that soothes it.
It’s too good to be true, but Alexei needs it to be.
“Hold me,” he says, trying not to plead. Whether he succeeds or not doesn’t seem to matter, though, when his Nightsong complies, wrapping its tendrils around his waist, his arms, his thighs in a bracing grip, and Alexei allows himself the simple luxury of feeling, of living in his own body.
This is real, he tells himself, gazing up at his Nightsong, its yellow eyes blossomed across its face like shattered glass. Like a kaleidoscope, kalos, beautiful. When one of its tendrils brushes up against his erect cock, the touch shoots up his spine like lightning, the buck of his hips the thunder chasing.
And the Nightsong marvels. “What would you like, Alexei?” it asks in a hush, achingly genuine.
Alexei gazes up at them, expression stiff with embarrassment, but the heat isn’t unpleasant. It makes this real, somehow, and gives him the courage to confess. “To feel you,” he murmurs, reaching up with his arms with bated breath. “Completely.”
This isn’t Alexei’s first time, not by any stretch of the imagination—but it’s his first time, maybe, to want like this, lucid and present and easy. What a relief it is, then, that his Nightsong knows him so well.
When it works him open, the tapered tip of its tendril is slick, and it eases inside Alexei so slowly it makes him writhe. The points of its claws indent his sides where they hold him but don’t yet draw blood. It starts gently, stroking inside him until the heat blooms low in his belly and he flushes pink with pleasure. Alexei’s usual hardness blurs, even his scowl going loose.
They have all the time in the world now, he knows that, but Alexei’s fraying patience can’t take it. “How,” Alexei says, his own breath hot against his lips, “How deep can you go?” and glances at his lover’s face.
The Nightsong looks down him, dripping shadows and fog, pupils blown like a cat in the dark. Oh, Alexei realizes. They’re melting too. And perhaps for the first time in his life, Alexei Usachenko finds himself endeared.
“As deep as you want,” it replies, ardent. “As deep as you’ll take me.”
And in this moment, Alexei wants nothing more in his life than to be here in the Blue Room completed by them. He wants to overflow with them, so much he can hardly breathe.
“Then all of you,” he says, pulling against their tendrils to reach up with both arms to stroke his palms down the broad swath of their back. “As deep as you can.”
He gasps when they finally enter him, crushing himself against them to bear with the stretch, but even that ache is a honeyed one, flooding his head with such longing, he feels feverish. The Nightsong hesitates, at his response, but he whispers, “Don’t you dare,” and kisses them again.
In response, the Nightsong begins to move, sliding in and out, and Alexei can feel them glide against him inside, every twitch, every curl, and he feels himself spasm around them, crying out in a quiet, smothered voice as they fill him deeper and deeper with every thrust.
“More,” he says, coaxing, demanding again and again, almost like prayer, until he’s brimming with them, stomach distending with every stroke, their tendrils entangled with his arms, his legs, as he pants and swears and trembles eagerly. To be filled with them makes it real, and he could cry, he could.
And though he’s not one to weep, abruptly he is and the tears spill down his cheeks as his mouth falls open, his pleasure cresting, and oh how hot tears feel upon his cheeks—like blood, but somehow lighter, like crying could have warmed him in his solitude if only he had let it.
But he has no need for tears anymore, and the Nightsong kisses them away. Alexei melts and melts, all the hard edges of him gone.
When he comes the first time, his voice comes in short moans, tongue aching for a name he doesn’t know. The second and third time, he calls them everything: his monster, his Nighsong, his savior, his home.
And maybe he confesses something else as well, spilling from his heart like a cup overfilled, but if he didn’t, that’s alright as well. Because from now on, they have tomorrow together, along with every day after that. If not today, then next time.
They have all the time in the world.
When Alexei rouses, he’s dry and clean, tucked naked into the queen sized bed. He wriggles, feeling how his skin slides smoothly against the bedsheets, and turns his head to see the Nightsong there, obsidian in the moonlight, watching him wake as it always has.
Suddenly aflame, Alexei grabs his pillow and hugs it to his chest, burying his too-hot face into it—but it’s hard to feel embarrassed when the pillow is the softest thing Alexei’s ever held. The cool silk of the pillowcase seems to drain away the heat from his cheeks, at least enough for him to dare peering out at the Nightsong once more.
It reaches out with a hand, brushes a lock of his hair from his forehead, and slowly, Alexei unwinds. Looking away, he loosens his hold on his pillow, shifts a little bit closer. The Nightsong chuckles, and maybe Alexei feels it in his chest as well, as it gently pulls the pillow from his grasp and shifts closer. It tucks Alexei into the cradle of his arms, and maybe Alexei allows it.
The Blue Room isn’t quiet at night. The clocks with their pendulums on the walls tick away, slightly out of sync with each other, and Alexei hears his own heartbeat too clearly in his ears, and it’s nice, he thinks. He thinks that maybe it’s a quiet he can live in.
So maybe that’s why when he speaks, it comes in a whisper, as though the peace is something too precious to break. “Do you have a name?” he asks his Nightsong at last. “Something to call you?”
“Call me what you’d like,” it replies, settling closer under the sheets. “I’m only yours.”
✽ ✽ ✽ ✽ ✽
In the Blue Room, sunlight streams through the window in rivulets, catching the glass figurines sitting on the shelf below the sill and scattering iridescent shadows along the sides of eggshell furniture. In the living room, Alexei sits alone—a breakfast for one at a table for two.
Perfectly poached eggs, a fresh croissant. Bacon crisp enough to snap in half. Along the back wall, amber bottles of bourbon sit alongside the bespoke teacups in their pretty glass cabinet, the empty space accounted for by the fresh cup in his hand.
When Alexei takes a sip, the liquor burns spiced and sweet on the back of his tongue.
Alexei hadn’t known that life could be so…
He makes a game of this too, listing off the words: kind, pleasant, perfectly lovely—no, that’s close, but not quite.
Maybe it’s okay now for him to think that life is just perfect.
Today, it rains, but rain has its own charm. Alexei tucks away in the Blue Room with a duster and a mop, setting about cleaning the space. He uses a stepping stool to reach the tops of the bookshelves and cabinets, swipes at the ornamental moulding along the ceilings. The patter of the rain against the glass falls like almost a song. As he passes the gramophone, he sets the needle to the record and lets music flood the rooms, and like a dance, cleaning has its own steps, its own flow.
He makes his way around each quarter like a ballroom, with a taller partner first as he dusts the tops, then one shorter as he mops the floors carefully until they gleam. Each teacup and trinket gets its polish, and as he shakes out the bed sheets from the drying rack, the silk fans around him as he turns, a glowing gown in the cloud-scattered light.
On a rainy day, there is no birdsong out the windows, the passerines drowned out by the brewing storm, but Alexei needs no birds to sing. His heart is a bird, fluttering in his chest, and a bird that happily knows only one song.
When all is said and done, Alexei sits by the window in fresh linen clothes and reads, thinking of the Nightsong and thinking of how wondrous a thing it is to clean and keep a home.
His heart is a bird, soaring in his chest.
How wonderful it is to have a nest to return to.
On one sunny summer afternoon, he sweeps into the bedroom, riffles through his vintage armoire to select his outfit for the day—an airy blouse with ruffles and ribbons, pale linen trousers perfect for the summer. At his dresser he skims his fingertips over an assortment of fabrics and chooses his favorite lace gloves, white and pristine.
He’s a regular at the local bookstore now, the one with the new releases displayed on pretty shelves and the old wares stacked one atop the other in towers taller than Alexei himself.
The old woman who runs the shop knows him by name. “Oh Alexei, come here a moment,” she calls out excitedly as he enters, waving him in with a hurried hand. “I’ve found something I think you’ll like!”
“Thank you, Ms. Mahinay,” Alexei replies, and follows her to the back, where she shows him the first edition of an old Austrian collection of fairy tales.
“Now, I don’t know how a young man like you can read all these languages!”
“I’m well-traveled,” Alexei replies. Ms. Mahinay in her wizened years doesn’t notice the wry humor of his words, but he supposes that’s just fine. To be ambiguous, to take milk in his tea—this, too, he thinks, is a happy privilege.
He returns with four new purchases, each hardcover with intricate spines, for his growing collection, knowing that there’s just the right gap to fill on his shelf.
That evening, he reads, setting foot in imagined worlds outside the looking-glass, beyond a dream.
When all is said and done, however, he steps once again in Alice’s shoes and wanders into Wonderland, and this time Alexei knows that should he never read the final pages, he never has to leave.
The water is so still and clear, Alexei can see the crags along the bottom of the lake. Slender fish swim in short bursts, and Alexei watches from his picnic blanket as morning sun dazzles across the surface of the water, skipping like a stone.
He’s laid out a spread of his favorite things—rich steaks, artfully seared but still pink on the inside; scallops in butter, assorted greens. Each ingredient locally sourced, he’s arranged it all artfully on matching plates, in sets of two beside him. The breeze is brisk against his skin, and Alexei closes his eyes into it as he takes his first bite, delighting at the juices that fill his mouth.
“I’ll have to visit this butcher again,” he remarks to no one, pouring whisky from a flask into his cup then the other. “I don’t believe I’ve ever had such good beef before.”
Dangling from a chain at his waist, his silver pocket watch tick tick ticks away, whiling away the minutes and hours. The air smells like grass and faraway rain, and Alexei watches the clouds—storybook perfect, cotton in the air—race one another across the clear blue sky.
He startles, slightly, at a nudge to his foot.
Drawing it back, he turns to see a pair of rabbits twitching their noses, one brown-furred, the other white. Blinking, Alexei offers up one gloved palm, letting the delicate creatures inch forward to nuzzle at his fingertips. The white one approaches first, blinking its little pink eyes. “And how have you come to be here?” he asks the braver of the two, stroking the albino between the eyes. “Is there some lab around here you’ve fled?”
But of course, the rabbit doesn’t answer.
“Well,” Alexei decides, “you could do worse than to keep me company for an afternoon. Better me than the hawks or foxes, isn’t it?” he says to the pair of them.
In the coming days, Alexei learns that names are fickle, fleeting things, and impossible to choose.
There’s something new to learn every day, it seems.
As he sits primly on the bus with its colorful seats, knees together and gloved hands in his lap, sometimes people stare. More often though, they don’t, and what a breath of fresh air that is as well.
In a crowd, people pass him by. No one grabs him or pulls the ribbon from his hair. He has nowhere to be but where he’d like. The breeze is crisp, and his lungs fill when he breathes, and he’s alive.
The city plaza is sprawling, with polished fountains, cobblestone—vendors with their carts sell their wares, air rich with spices, the smell of handheld foods. Voices clamor around him, some high some low, peals of laughter alongside idle conversation, and to be frank, sometimes it still gets to be a bit too much.
Alexei blinks, drawing himself a little taller, clutching at the strap of his shoulder bag as his gaze flits from one corner of the square to the other. “There, the pretty blonde miss!” a man calls from a food truck. “Have a galette! Best in the city!”
Without turning to check who he’s speaking to, Alexei walks away.
Water bursts from the floor in high streams and children laugh as they run through them, laughing, their parents calling their names from the sidelines. Alexei gives them a wide berth as he weaves through the crowd, picking up speed as he darts for a bench in a shadowed corner of the plaza.
He sits with a sigh, away from the crowd, and stares at how the dappled sunlight dances over his shoes through the surrounding trees. Perhaps, he thinks, he had gotten ahead of himself. The Blue Room is one thing and his neighborhood another, but maybe it was too much to attempt the heart of the city so soon.
Alexei sighs again then, tilting his head back to look up at the leaves, how they rustle in the breeze. Though still green, some of them are drying at the edges with the turn of the seasons.
How long does that make it then, he wonders?
With a deep breath, deep enough to clear the building ache in his temples, he thinks of his Nightsong and shuts his eyes, conjures them in his mind beside him.
He flutters his eyes open, turns his head to the shadow standing beside him—into a face he does not recognize, a tall young man with round features and a freckled complexion. “You’re Alexei, yes?” he asks. “Your partner’s been waiting over there.”
The stranger points towards the center of the plaza, where a fountain serves as both seating and centerpiece for the restaurants nearby. Alexei stares at a solitary figure standing beside it, and rises swiftly to his feet. “Yes, thank you,” Alexei says, nodding tersely at the stranger.
His shoes aren’t made for running, and they don’t stay quiet as his feet tap against the cobblestone. Out the corner of his eye he sees a drunkard, not yet angry but growing red in the face—a future fight, a future battle, but one that isn’t his. He ignores everything else but how nice his clothes feel against his skin and how much nicer his Nightsong feels in his arms when he rushes to embrace them.
Embarrassed, he hides his face in their shirt. “You could have come to me, you know,” he grumbles, feeling petulant.
“But then you wouldn’t have hugged me like this,” the Nightsong says, and Alexei kicks them lightly in the shin. When he pulls away, his face is still red as he scowls.
“It seems you get bolder every passing day,” he remarks, crossing his arms and turning away.
“You’ll have to cut me off at the pass then,” his Nightsong replies, and Alexei’s determination to pout ebbs away when they wrap their arms around him from behind.
He thaws, tension draining, as he looks up sulkily at his partner, melts further at the warmth in their eyes.
They look almost human lately. Their once foggy figure has solidified, skin smooth and bright as pearls within their shell. Now their face remains without a hand to sculpt it—and how perplexing a face it is! Its symmetry uncanny, its softness sharp, without pore or blemish, they seem almost a mannequin.
They should look out of place in any country, Alexei muses, East Asian with a shock of white hair and a crisp black suit—but if anyone else had noticed his Nightsong’s oddness, or the still-jaundiced glow of their sclera, they never mentioned it.
He lets them put a handkerchief down so that he can sit beside them on the fountain’s edge and leans against their shoulder as they tell him tales—things they’ve seen and heard today, what transpired in their hours apart. How easy it is to while the time away, when it’s together and not alone.
And at quarter past the prior moment, a woman emerges from one of the restaurants nearby in a bistro apron to scan the plaza. “Excuse me,” she calls once she spots his Nightsong, who turns their head to smile. The server raises a pair of menus, sleeved in plastic, in her hands. “Your table for two is ready!”
Alexei glances at his Nightsong, who rises to their feet. “Shall we?” they ask, offering their hand.
And though Alexei doesn’t smile in turn, his eyes say it all—almost translucent in the summer sun, the happiness in their depths plain to see.
“Don’t ask stupid questions,” Alexei retorts, placing his hand in theirs.
And as the strange pair takes their seats under the canopy of the restaurant, the server pours two glasses and sets two plates, and anyone who sees Alexei with his Nightsong will know this to be true—that this is a happy ending.
What a curious epiphany to have, Alexei thinks, in a moment so mundane as this. He is happy.
How simple and wonderful it is to be happy.