Spring, Year One (5th Moon)

Alex looked groggily up at Garron.

"Mmmrr?

"Easy, kitten, you're still a bit out of it. The dozers'll wear off in about 20 minutes. They had to sedate you in order to patch you up a bit, but you're all right now." Garron curled his tail around one luxuriously nude thigh and smiled adoringly down at Alex. "Came back to me, did you, darling? Good thing you made it here in time. Night's fallen." Garron lay down and stretched out next to Alex, nuzzling his shoulder. Alex made a damp sound of complaint with his tongue and tried to roll away. "Don't be scared, kitten. I'll be gentle." Alex sighed and tolerated the wolfe's caresses until his tongue began to behave.

"Ge' off'f me," he slurred, pushing Garron's hands away from where they'd wandered to stroke his hipbones and thighs. Garron smiled indulgently.

"Modest, are we? I understand. You'll need some time to adjust. Just remember," he said, baring his teeth ever-so-slightly, "who the master of this house is." Alex dropped his head in immediate submission. No sense, he decided, in displeasing his host. Most especially since he'd managed to get himself caught up with an extremely powerful host — according to all reports, Garron was the First Alpha male of the ColdRiver pack, the highest possible position in the Wolvish Empire, which spanned the American East from what was once Canada down to the islands, and as far east as the Mississippi. After he'd run away from the Louts in the far North and disappeared onto the open road, he'd quickly begun to search for the path of least resistance to freedom. His truck failed, somewhere after Philadelphia, and he'd been lost, with no place to go, no food, and a bounty on his head, so he'd started walking, hoping for the best. He'd passed out just inside of the Maryland line, close enough to Garron's immediate territory that he had at least a chance of being found.

And found he was. Garron told him the story later, as he'd lain in the infirmary bed.

"There were sixteen of us in the hunting pack when we found you. Or Kriston found you, I should say. You were curled up beneath a tree, love, filthy to the point of being unscentable. If it hadn't been for this," here, Garron's hand wanders to idly stroke the bracelet he'd given Alex when they'd first met. "we probably would have never recognized you."

That was a possibility Alex preferred not to consider.

If Garron hadn't found him, then he wouldn't have been rescued. And if he hadn't been rescued, then he couldn't very well escape, now could he?

Escape. Now there was a prospect to focus on. Maybe if he could reach the shore and find a boat...so many islands remained untouched, undisturbed, uncharted but by human hands. Maybe he could find one — sparsely populated, but accessible enough — and he could live a normal life again. Or at least as normal as one could expect while pretending that the world wasn't a wasteland, torn apart and invaded and divvied up between six species no one had ever heard of twenty years back. Before the nations he'd served and subverted bent and caved and crumbled under the crushing weight of contact.

Alexander Nikolaevich Romanov had been considered a patriot then, on two fronts, and had been truthfully loyal to neither. To be free of that burden in particular brought him a relief that was confused, secret, and profound. He had no allegiances now — at least not to anything but his own freedom. That fact alone almost made the collapse seem worthwhile.

Now, lying on his side in the infirmary bed, only half-listening to what Garron was saying, Alex began to plan his next steps. He'd already escaped from the Louts – in itself a challenging task — but were they still after him? A shudder coursed along his spine as he considered the possibility. Come what may, he would not go back there. But where was he now? From Garron's rambling, he'd managed to gather that he was in the ColdRiver mainstay, somewhere near along the southeastern shore of the mid-Atlantic, and right at the heart of the eastern Wolfish territory. Clearly, relieving himself of this situation would require some finesse.

Garron's intentions for him were quite clear; everyone knew wolfes were mate-crazy, and from the first time they'd met, the wolfe had never hid his desire from Alex. It had made for some hairy encounters in the past, but perhaps now this could be to the human's advantage. Garron's affections might, in fact, be just about the best thing that had ever happened to Alex. If he could just keep the wolfe king's favor for long enough to be sure the Louts had lost his trail, then he could escape back into the world a free man. No treaties guaranteed the extradition of wolvish escapees, and if Alex could just make off towards the south, then there might be some chance to find a refuge, an island; anything to call home. It would be so simple. If he could pull it off.

Alex bit his lip and nodded in a particularly obsequious way, drawing the wolfe's attention. Garron cocked one eyebrow in half-suspicious amusement.

"Behaving already? That's not the human I remember."

Alex ignored this and smiled warmly, letting his eyes go shiny and even mist up a bit.

"Well, I've changed," he said sweetly, then looked off, towards the window of his infirmary room, gazing at something beyond the wolfe's view. "Garron?"

"Yes, love?"

"I've really missed you."

Garron's eyes went alight with adoration and Alex briefly felt regret about deceiving him. It faded, quickly.

"And I, you, kitten."

"I - I'm sorry."

"For?" Garron's question carried a particular tone to it that demanded more than another innocence declaration.

"For running off. For - for disappearing. For stealing from you. For tricking your men. For stealing from your men. For leading you on." Alex worked his jaw for a second, then added, "And for betraying you. It was — it was all a mistake." Garron regarded the human cautiously for a moment, then reached one large hand out to stroke his hair.

"Your rebellion was understood then, as it is now. You're forgiven." Garron's voice gentled. "Besides, you were too innocent — you didn't know what the world was like out there. But you know now, don't you? And you're home now, aren't you?"

Alex looked up into those penetrating gray eyes, so uncommon to see on a wolfe, and nodded.

"Are you — will you let me stay?" he was careful to make his question sound tentative, nervous.

"I had no inclination whatsoever to do otherwise." Perfect.

"Garron?"

"Hmm, darling?"

"I can't sleep here. Will you take me…with you?"

"Yes."

Garron leaned in closer to the human, and Alex knew he was taking in his scent again.

"Now?" he flicked his eyes away, to the floor, then back up to his wolfe.

"I'd like to rest, but I thought maybe we could spend some time together again." Garron's pupils dilated and he nodded.

"We'll get you out of here immediately."

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Alex was taken from the infirmary, after the doctors verified that he was generally without injury or disease, and placed under watch in Garron's suite. The Alphas' quarters occupied the entire top floor of the North Wing, and Alex couldn't help but envy Garron his style. All done through in dark woods and polished stone, the entryway led into a massive reception room that appeared to seat at least 20, a kitchen and meat locker were visible off to the right, and a short hallway to the left led into a massive bedroom, where Garron eventually ended their tour. However, beyond the bedroom, he explained, were the bathing rooms that he shared with Second Alpha Kriston. The other shared Alpha spaces were above, on the rooftop — the private pool and hot baths, garden and aviary.

Alex never got to see all these, unfortunately, because by the time they had gotten as far as the bedroom, he'd been exhausted. Days of sleeplessness, hiding out, overwhelming fear, and general mortal panic had caught firmly up with him, and he quickly found himself inextricably sworn to slumber.

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Alex woke when Garron returned home later that evening and called for the 20hour meal to be brought to his suite. Rather than try to lead his mate into the reception room to dine, Garron simply removed his outer layer, then climbed onto the bed and ate with Alex, the two of them sitting cross-legged and making a mess of the whole thing. Just as they were coming to the end of the meat and the odd rice-paste that wolfes were so fond of, Garron leaned over and kissed him. Alex wasn't surprised; had been expecting it, in fact, through the evening of lustful glances and long pauses. But expectation had no bearing on acceptance. For this, too, Alex had a plan. After a few minutes of further embrace, Alex stilled in Garron's arms. Garron stopped, too, breathless.

"What's wrong, darling?"

Alright. Here was make-or-break time. If he didn't sell it, he would lose it.

"I just - I didn't - I'm sorry." Alex bit the inside of his lip until he teared up. "I'm trying, but — " he sniffled a few times and scrubbed at his eyes with the heel of his hand. Garron released him and sat up, concerned.

"But what, love? What's wrong?"

"I can't do this."

Alarm lit Garron's features and his gaze raked Alex's body.

"Can't? Darling, why? The doctors said you were alright — have they missed something? Are you hurt?"

Alex allowed sufficient time for a dramatic pause to pass as he took deep breaths and tried to be brave. Finally, he spoke:

"When I was with the Louts," Alex could just feel Garron bristling at the mention of that. "Things happened. Bad things."

Garron's expression darkened, but his voice remained gentle.

"Kitten, please tell me what's happened. What did they do to you?"

Alex looked away, squeezed one hand into a fist, and wiped away more forced tears.

"When - when I ran from you — "

"Yes?"

"James and I got lost. And then these…things found us." Garron's muscles were tense with agitation, but he waited patiently for the human to go on. "Louts, and that was when I got scared. We told them who we were, and that we were Wolvish, and that we wanted to go home, but they wouldn't let us pass." Garron gathered Alex, who was now on the verge of tears, into his arms. "They gave us to two other men, generals. And they said that we were gifts to them." Alex had his head on Garron's shoulder, but he could tell that he was gritting his teeth.

"And what happened then, kitten?"

"Then I didn't see James anymore. I don't know what happened to him. But mine...he tried to have me…as a mate. And when I fought him, he beat me, chained me to the floor, and told me I would stay there until I learned my place."

Garron's hold had tightened as his anger had grown, and now Alex could see the fur on his tail standing on end.

"My poor, poor little one Alexei." he cooed, but his rage was obvious in the grit of his voice and the tightness of his jaw. Alex went on.

"And I was so sorry, Garron. All I could think about was what I'd done — what I'd given up, here, with you. All I wanted was to come back. All I wanted was to come home."

"And that's where you are now," Garron comforted, "You're home with me." Alex clung to his wolfe's shoulder for a few minutes before collecting himself and pulling away.

"I hate the Louts." he said, wiping his eyes with a corner of his shirt that revealed just a bit of his abdomen to the wolfe. "They're looking for me now. They think I've betrayed them; that I've run away from my Lout husband and been unfaithful, but I haven't, Garron. I didn't consent to any of that, and I was already almost mated to you when they found me - I told them so! I haven't done anything wrong, but I don't think they'll stop until they get me back and punish me. I don't…" he began, slowing his voice and glancing up at the wolfe, "I don't think I can get away from them without your help. I'm scared."

"You needn't be. You're in Wolvish territory now; they wouldn't dare come here. And we're far more powerful than they are, anyway. Shush, darling, your mate will keep you safe."

Alex nodded, bit his lip, and went into Garron's arms again. Fantastic. A promise of protection and the romantic attention of a powerful wolfe were about the best ticket to an easy escape any human could ask for.

"And we don't have to do anything tonight, kitten. In a few weeks, right? By then, we'll be bonded, and you'll have had some time to rest up." Alex nodded against the wolfe's shoulder. Already, things were going even better than he'd planned.

"I'm sorry." he sighed, stroking a finger along Garron's bare arm. The wolfe grunted and shifted his hold on the human.

"Oh, darling, what for?"

"I've disappointed you."

"Hardly." Garron kissed his forehead. "You don't feel well, and that's fine. First thing in the morning, we'll have the doctor talk to you and make sure everything's OK, alright?" Alex gave a wan little smile and Garron patted his arm. "Now let's get this mess cleaned up."

By the time they'd finished clearing the food away and changing the sheets, Alex was exhausted again. Garron put him to bed and climbed in beside him, cuddling up next to the warmth of the human's body. That night, Alex slept peaceful, in a warm soft bed in a safe home, with the wolfe Garron's heart beating steady beside him.

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"My assessment," the doctor began, looking closely at Garron, "is that he's suffered a great deal of trauma, both mental and physical. He seems to be fairly untouched, internally, but he's got plenty of bruises on him, particularly about his hips and sides. We've regenerated most of them away, but I'm sure the scars on his mind are far more plentiful and difficult to reach. He seems to have blocked many of the memories, although we found enough to verify his story. My advice to you, as I'm assuming that you intend to mate the little one, is to be very gentle with him, physically, for the next few weeks, until you're sure he's back in working condition, and even more gentle with him mentally, until he seems to greet your advances with eagerness."

Garron nodded.

"I will."

The doctor leaned closer. He knew warriors well.

"You'll have to be patient. Very patient."

Garron swallowed and nodded.

"I can do that."

"Please do. I'd hate to see him back in my office at your hands."

Garron frowned.

"On my honor, I won't let that happen."

"Good." The doctor turned and rifled through a few drawers behind him.

"Well, if he complains of soreness, rub some of this on his bruises." Garron took the medicine he was offered, wrinkling his nose at the scent, and turned to leave the office.

"One more thing, First Alpha."

Garron turned back. The doctor sagely laced his hands on the desk in front of him and peered at the younger wolfe.

"You may want to begin introducing him to the idea of pups now. It will give him something to focus on besides the physicality of your relationship, and may help him to feel a bit more anchored. It may even give him some sense of goals, of purpose. That may help."

Respectfully, Garron nodded, bowed, and left the office.

He returned to the examination room, where Alex was waiting for him, nervously drumming his fingers on the cold metal table. The human still wore just a hospital robe, and Garron was briefly tempted by the possibilities presented in his mate's state of undress. Alex's eyes met Garron's as the wolfe entered.

"What'd he say?"

"Well." Garron's face got very solemn. "He's given me some very serious news."

"What?" Alex went sixteen shades of pale and Garron smiled broadly.

"Just that you are going to be absolutely fine. He confesses you've suffered some…trauma, and he thinks that you're still very deeply affected by that. But he tells me you'll be right as rain in a few weeks, if you keep coming in for your checkups and meeting with your adjustor. But he reminds me that I must be gentle with you, particularly now, as you've just begun healing." Alex exhaled deeply.

Excellent. So all was still well, and his plans were still on. Garron was right — if everything went as he wanted it to go, Alex was absolutely, positively, definitely going to be just fine.

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Alex napped again when they returned to the Alpha suite, and woke around 15h to the smell of food cooking. Slowly, he opened his eyes and found a pair of sharp grey ones staring back at him. Alex blinked. The eyes smiled.

"You're awake." Garron said. Alex looked down the bed, to where a thick grey tail was thumping happily against his calf.

"Uh-huh."

"I made food." Garron told him, excitedly. Alex looked around as best he could without moving his head and groaned a little. "The doctors said that you have to eat."

"My head hurts. What time is it?"

"After fifteen hours, love, and you have to get up. You need to eat, and then I have something to show you."

With much more coaxing and a few bites of whatever it was that Garron had made in the other room, the wolfe finally persuaded his mate to get up and follow him.

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Damn. Damn damn damn damn damn damn damn damn fuck. Everything was perfect. Just perfect. It had all been going so well. Why'd this have to come along and ruin it?

Alex paced the floor in the bedroom, chewing away his fingernails into rags. There was no way out of this. There was no goddamn way out of this. He knew that different colonies had been working for almost forty years now on the issue of fertility. Ever since the women had been taken in the first invasion, and the reproduction banks decimated by the Plague, humans had been working nonstop on finding some way to create new life — to keep mankind alive. The Wolfes, the Louts, and the Psires had also been stricken; the combination of forces between groups had multiplied the rate of research into potential solutions exponentially.

But those solutions had remained just that — potential. Nothing more. If there had been any definitive answers, Alex would have known. All humans would have known! There was no way they couldn't have known. Alex's thoughts raced through his mind. He should have known.

The Wolfes had never deigned to be a part of the reproductive research treaties. They had been affected by the Plague for sure — that much was common knowledge. Their numbers had stayed relatively constant over the years — that was common knowledge, too, but the explanation was obvious. Wolfes were renowned kidnappers, picking up any humans they could find — just orphans at first, and the abandoned, but then it was humans from the small groups, sometimes entire groups at a time, and then it was humans wherever they found them, collecting more and more on their way to building an empire.

But those empire-building plans had remained sketchy to outsiders; the Wolvish empire was secretive, and Alex and James were two of only a handful to ever walk away from it. When Alex had visited the first time, he hadn't seen any children, only occasional groups of teenagers, and although even that sight was unfamiliar, nothing about it seemed extraordinary. He'd had no idea. None. Tip of the iceberg. No wonder the wolfes never bothered with any of the research treaties. And now it made sense, how they never took anyone but humans. It was strange, it was bizarre, and it was unbelievable, but as Alex had stood next to Garron in the hybrid nursery, there was no doubt that it was true.

Through the glass, they watched six tiny newborns sleep. Silent machines with illuminated projection screens surrounded them, and they were swaddled in furs and tiny fleece blankets. Garron's tail slapped idly against Alex's leg as they stood there, side by side, watching.

"They're kept here for a 12-hour observation period before they're returned to their birthers." In the room to the left, a young man with curly brown hair and angelic almond-shaped eyes was sleeping, being watched intently by a pacing wolfe who was dividing his time between checking on his pups, guarding his mate, and monitoring the position of Garron and Alex, who, even through the glass, stood too close to his litter for his liking. Garron smiled softly.

"He's protective. That's good." Alex examined the man in the bed as discreetly as he could. "I would be, too, with a mate so beautiful." Alex bridled a little at that comment, but squashed that minor jealousy as soon as it arose. Garron went on, his voice reverent. "And such a large litter! But he's carried it beautifully; they all look wonderful."

"Don't they." Alex replied dryly. In the room, the man was waking, and the wolfe rushed to his side. Garron's tail slowed its thump against Alex's leg and there was real lust in his voice as he spoke.

"Words, but he's lovely."

Alex felt a curious stab of something in his chest, just under the ribcage, but put it down to a bad lunch. It certainly wasn't the slighted feeling of being ignored by one's lover. Besides, it was obvious that Garron's interest in the birther was only a passing distraction — for one, it was obvious the human already had a mate. And for two, Garron had once told Alex that he believed him to be one of the most prepossessingly handsome humans on Erim. Obviously that was still true, even if it had been some time ago. It hadn't been that long. Garron's opinion of him wouldn't have changed that quickly. Alex felt annoyed at himself, suddenly, for this entire train of thought. Garron's opinion, in fact, was of very little consequence to Alex, just so long as the wolfe abetted The Great Escape. Before he was capable of restoring his self-interested stoicism, however, Garron turned and caught just a hint of the emotions fleeting across Alex's face.

"Fuck, I'm sorry, kitten. That was a stupid thing to say."

Alex shrugged off the hand that went to stroke his face.

"S'alright." he mumbled, suddenly finding himself flushing.

"No...damn, I didn't mean to do that. Of course he's nowhere near so perfect as you, darling. Not even half. You're all I want." Garron was insistent.

"It's OK." Alex managed a small smile and took Garron's hand in his own. "Tell me more about the pups, will you? About how…this works?" Garron eagerly switched topics.

"There's a ten month gestation period. And the litters are usually about four, although they can come as little as one or as big as nine. You can tell the males; they're born with tails. Females are tailless."

Alex furrowed his brow.

"They're all males, Garron."

Garron shook his head.

"No, those will eventually grow up to bear more pups. They're females." Alex blinked at Garron.

"I'm not a female."

Garron, deciding not to belabor the point, just shrugged.

"Well, we'll see when you have your puppies, alright, darling?"

Alex considered arguing, but decided that his point wasn't the most important thing in the room right then. Garron continued explaining.

"We found out by accident, years ago, just after the first of us made our way here. There was a litter born to a human male. It was lost, as was the story, for some time, but we found the records 12 years ago. We were able to track down four of the six in the litter still living, far off in Psire territory. We contacted them and they agreed to come and live here, with their own." Garron frowned. "Only one is a male, and he is tailless. It was cut off when he was a child, by adopted parents who called it a deformed abomination. But otherwise, they are all healthy. Research showed that this wasn't an isolated phenomenon. We took a few humans, for tests, and they went wonderfully. Your species seems to be a perfect complement to ours."

Here Garron turned to Alex, smiling broadly.

"Our pheromones act as suppressants to your own regulatory systems, leaving your body vulnerable, confused, and wholly unprepared to resist any sort of intruders. Now, your genetic code is normally under mutagenic attack — this does not change. But in the case of regulatory suppression, your restorative proteins are unable to repair any damage done. Frightened, panicking, and with very little time, they will snatch out and patch the holes in their lines with any genes they find available — if the wolfe, by this point, has done his job right, then those genes will be ours. More specifically, they'll be part of a unique package of gametic proteins — even the short chains of which are peculiarly capable of triggering a series of physiological alterations in the reproductive capability of a human."

Garron smiled again.

"It's a bit more complicated than that - I'm afraid I've given you the child's version — but the point is it works. And because it works, we are going to survive." Garron finished, proudly. "Wolvish genes are exceedingly clever, it seems. In the same way that your bodies have a habit of keeping the doors closed, ours have a habit of picking the locks."

Alex was silent for a moment, just processing, thinking, and taking in this new earth-shaking shift in his understanding of the world.

"So then the children — are they wolfe or human?"

"Either. The chromosomes make the choice." Garron frowned a little. "We haven't had any Old females produced yet. They don't seem to be in the cards just now. But that's alright. The current system seems to be working just fine." Alex nodded and stepped away from the glass. Garron looked sympathetically at him. "I know this is all a bit much to take in at once, darling."

"You have no idea." This was sick. Fascinating, but sick.

"But you'll get used to it." Never.

"Will I?" Garron nodded and sat down beside Alex.

"It's unbelievable, I know. But it's not strange; it's wonderful. The children are all beautiful, and healthy, and so well loved. No one could ask for a better solution." Alex swallowed. He knew what was coming. "So naturally," Garron said casually, looking keenly into Alex's face, "We'll all want to participate."

Alex's mind reeled, but he knew better than to run screaming from the room, or even hesitate in his responsiveness.

"Naturally," he said, swallowing a choke, "We will."

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This trip was turning out to be a total fucking catastrophe.

Everything he'd seen in the nursery today had terrified him. It had been eventuality he'd been completely unprepared for. Pups. iChildren./i Garron wanted children. Out of him.

Alex had to hold on to the wall briefly to keep from losing his balance. OK. Just think. Maybe there was still a way out of this? What if he just had one litter. Just one, and in exchange Garron promised to release him? No, that would never work. Wolfes took parentage very seriously, and if he had a litter and left…well, not only would Garron never stop hunting him down, but his life wouldn't be worth much when the wolfe found him. Abandoning a cub was just one step above murder in the Wolvish justice system. Alex would probably be beaten, jailed, and then drugged into loving the little rugrats. And besides, leaving Garron was one thing. Leaving his own child — tail and paws or not — was another.

OK. So no children then. So he just had to avoid it, at one level or the other. He could avoid sex, probably, for another few weeks, until it became obvious what he was doing. And then what? Fine. He'd just have to avoid getting knocked up, then. But how? The Wolfes probably knew. If they could make 'em, he was sure they could prevent 'em. But it would be far too dangerous to go to any wolfe with this query. Like a good little soldier, he'd go running straight away to his alpha to tattle on the alpha's mate.

OK. So he would have to do it himself, then. Keep that whole…process from working. Alex swallowed, again, slowly. He could do this. He could figure it out. He'd find something he could take, or some tea he could drink, or…something. And what if that failed? Alex's mind went silent, then roused into a flurry of confusion and thought. Floating in bold print above all the minor notes and half-fragged sentences was the single, terrifying, subversive, disruptive, rebelliously seditious suggestion that It Might Not Be That Bad.

Alex's world spun and it kept spinning. He had held a baby exactly twice in his life. The first time had been at age 20, in Kolyngrad, when an infant had shown up at the church from who knows where and he had been momentarily available and in possession of a spare blanket and the priest had been busy making phone calls. The second time had been at 27, in the Colonies, when he had witnessed a surrogate give birth in a moving medical cart in the underground. The infant had outlived its birther, by three pitiful minutes. But even dead, the thing was a rare reverence, and so Alex had dutifully held it, just as the rest of the group had, before they put them both in the ground.

The contrast between those two episodes — the serendipitous arrival of life and the abrupt replacement of it with death — had struck him so deeply that thoughts of children had remained with him ever since. It was a thing, Alex had realized some time ago, that he wanted. But not like this. Not in a place too far from home; not while he wasn't safe; not when it was essentially forced.

"Garron," he began, and hesitated only when he saw and comprehended the look in the wolfe's eye. Garron's expression told him clearly that if he resisted this, if he did not give even ithis/i to his wolfe, then all hope for their bond was lost. There was only one thing to do — he'd let Garron have his way with him and sneak off afterwards to counter it every time. He could pass it off as infertility, which should be easy enough. A diluted iodine rinse should do it, if administered in proper time: Iodine fixed everything. This wouldn't be as pleasant a visit as he had hoped. He half-smiled at his wolfe.

"I'll try."

"Alright." Garron looked relieved. He leaned over for a quick kiss and Alex allowed it. "All I ask is that you try."

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