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“Kaz, just...just wait.” Inej sounded tired, but also concerned. He supposed that was warranted. He had probably startled her. As far as she knew, there was no reason behind his savage treatment of Joren, the Razorgull they’d ambushed earlier.

Kaz had been planning on just scaring some information out of him and then just sending him on his way. Catch and release. Tried and true, simple and effective. But then, while Kaz had been waiting for him outside of the gambling den, he’d caught Inej’s name on Joren’s lips. Not her real name, the one he whispered to himself in the velvet dark of the night sometimes, but the name he had gifted to her.

“It’s a shame about the Wraith,” Joren had said. “She’s wasting her talents serving only Dirtyhands.”

“How do you know he doesn’t share her round the dregs? All things being fair and equal” his companion had said.

“Nah. From what I hear he guards her jealously. No one else is to sample her wares.”

“Well, it’s not as if whores don’t come by the dozen in the barrel. I’m sure you can find another girl to your tastes.”

“Oh, I know. Heleen acquired a new lynx some time ago. She’s lovely.” Joren grinned wickedly, waggling his eyebrows. “But the Wraith used to do this thing where…”

Joren went on to list the terrible acts he used to perform upon Inej’s body. He described her as a list of parts. Long legs. Smooth belly. Firm breasts. Silken hair. It was detached and dehumanizing, and it made Kaz’s teeth grind together.

His Wraith was perched three stories above, on the roof of the gambling hall, and had not heard the men discussing her. She rarely brought up her time at the Menagerie to him. Occasionally, if it was pertinent to a job, she would quietly mention that a mark or accomplice had been a ‘client’ of hers, but would never say more. He respected that. He did not pry, it was not his information to know. But the way Joren spoke of her made his blood boil.

When he and Inej cornered Joren a few blocks away, Kaz’s plan flew off the rails. He had swept the legs out from under the man, flipped his cane around, and proceeded to beat Joren’s face in. The beak of the crow’s head had gouged into the man’s face, clawing out chunks of flesh.

He had struck again and again and again and again, until he felt Inej lay a hand on his shoulder. She and Jesper were the only people who were ever allowed to touch him, and he had found himself becoming more and more tolerant to her gentle touches over the past year. Once, her fingertips had brushed over his bare cheekbone, and he had lit up with a mixture of dazzling pleasure and mind-numbing terror.

She was speaking, he realized belatedly, urging him to leave.

“It is done, Kaz. His screams will have summoned the stadwatch. We need to be gone before they get here.”

Stiffly, he had nodded, and followed her up onto the rooftops and back home to the Slat.

Now they were here, standing six feet apart in his room. He wiped his face, and found blood on his hands. Joren’s blood must have spattered all over him. Inej had what appeared to be rust red freckles dusted across her cheekbones. Also Joren’s blood, he realized.

Inej walked towards him, and he backed away, matching her step for step. His knees hit the back of the bed, and they both stopped.

“Just...sit, Kaz,” Inej said. She sounded weary. “I will return in a moment.”

He did as he was told, feeling cold in the rickety room. His gloves were covered in blood, and he slipped them off, allowing them to fall to the floor. There was a stark line on his wrists, where the gloves had protected his skin from the spray.

He felt absent from his body, the burning rage from earlier had dissipated, and there was a hollowness in its place. He did not know why he was affected so. This was hardly the most violent act he’d ever committed, or the worst rage he’d ever known.

He buried his face in his hands, and let the minutes stretch by until he heard Inej’s soft step on the floor again. She carried a wide basin of steaming water in her hands. Without saying a word, she set it on the bedside table, and then caught his sleeve between her fingers. She pulled on it, and Kaz followed the motion. She pulled him up, and Kaz stood before her, looking down at her in the silence.

She reached up to his neck, and began undoing the buttons there. He laid his bare hand on her covered arm, questioning with his eyes.

“Trust me Kaz.” He did. Oh, saints, but he trusted her far more than he should. Inej’s presence called to the small light inside of him that was named Kaz Rietveld. The part he’d crushed down and suffocated for the past decade. Inej made it flutter and pulse, as though the other boy was trying to expand and fill his chest.

He let his hand fall, and she made quick work of his buttons, pushing his shirt and coat off his shoulders. She was careful not to let her fingers touch his skin, which he appreciated. Soon he stood before her in only his breeches, pale skin forming goosebumps in the chill of the room.

She plunged her hands into the steaming bowl of water, seemingly impervious to the heat. She emerged with a wet rag, which she loosely wrung out before reaching out to rub it across his face. The rag was soft and warm, and he could feel her fingers through it. She wiped carefully across his cheekbones, pausing every so often to wet the cloth again. Soon his face was clean and the water was tinged a little pink. She moved on briskly, working down his neck and shoulders, across the bare planes of his chest.

Kaz lost himself in the sensation, allowing his eyes to flutter shut. He could feel warmth and contentment simmering below his skin, following the sweep of the cloth. When he peeked through his eyelashes at her, he found her entirely focused on her task. She was washing his chest, right over his heart, which was about eye level for her. He found himself wanting to close his arms around her, pulling her into his chest and never let her go again.

He shook the feeling off. He avoided any such feeling with Inej. They all seemed to lead to him wanting to cage her, to chain her to himself. He felt wracked with guilt every time he dreamed of her body and woke hard and aching. Every time he sought release with her name on his lips. What made him any better than Heleen or Joren if this was how he thought of her?

He resolved in that moment that he would never lust for her again. The ease and contentment that filled him in her presence was too precious a thing to lose.

That resolve crumbled mere moments later, when she swept the warm rag down across his belly. He was so exposed, so bare to her, and her touch trended farther down with every swipe of the rag. His breath caught, and the muscles in stomach jumped under her touch. She was still being careful not to let her bare skin brush against his, careful to leave the rag as a barrier between them, but he suddenly found himself wishing that she wouldn’t. That she would lay the rag aside and press both of her bare hands against him, firm and solid.

She carefully washed even lower, the rag brushing over his hip bones, and suddenly Kaz found himself praying that instead of laying her hands on his torso, she would reach down into his pants. To wrap his cock in her warm hands and stroke him there as tenderly as she did above.

Shame filled Kaz as he hardened in his breeches. Clearly, he was just as much of a pig as the men who had sought her out at the Menagerie. He was grateful when she shifted her attention from his belly to his shoulders, cleaning down his arms with firm strokes. She washed down to his wrists, brushing a burning path over his tattoos, pausing to re-wet the rag occasionally, and then spoke, breaking the sacred silence that had built between them.

“Hold your hands out for me, Kaz.”

Silently, he did as he was told, holding his bare hands palms up. She washed them with painstaking care, the cloth finding its way into all the crooks and crevices between his fingers. He had not been touched like this, ever, and it had been so long since anyone had touched his hands in any capacity beyond a brusque handshake. His body did not know how to react to it, and he could feel the waters trying to rise up and take him. He fought them, hard. He needed to be here in this moment with Inej. He would not allow anything to rob him of these precious minutes.

Soon she finished with his hands and circled around to his back. Kaz burst out into shivers at the feel of the warm rag along the back of his neck. Inej was the only person he ever felt safe turning his back to, and he could not imagine ever granting someone else this kind of access to him.

He fought against his cock as it strained in his trousers, aching and delighted by each new touch she bestowed upon him. She swept a gentle path across his shoulders, down the small of his back, and around his sides.

Suddenly, the touch of the rag was gone, and Kaz was left bereft.

“I’m going to fetch fresh water,” Inej announced, dropping the rag back into the basin and carrying them from the room.

Kaz used her absence to fight down his erection. He forced himself to relive every gruesome fight he’d ever been in, he called to mind the bloated bodies that would line the streets in the summer heat, stinking and ripe to bursting. He had just gotten himself under control when Inej returned, the basin and a pitcher in her hands.

This time she pulled his desk chair out, and set the basin on the floor before it. She sat in the chair, her body squared off and her feet planted on either side of the washbasin.

“Come,” she said. “Sit here.” She gestured to the floor before her, and after a long moment of consideration, he did.

He was sitting so that he was facing the door, and he drew his knees up, resting his elbows on them.

She laid the rag across his shoulder, and then pressed her hand into it, guiding his torso back until his shoulders rested against her knees. She picked up the rag again, and then laid it against the side of his face, using her fingertips to apply gentle pressure, tilting his head until it hung straight back. She allowed the rag to fall in the basin and picked up the pitcher.

“Close your eyes,” she said, and so he did.

A warm stream of water fell upon his forehead, running across his scalp and soaking his hair. She carefully poured the water until his hair was completely soaked and dripping down into the basin between her knees.

“Can I?” she murmured, close and intimate. He opened his eyes to find her fingertips only a hair’s breadth from his hairline, hovering questioningly.

He nodded, sucking in a deep breath. He could do this. He would do this. His shoulders tensed in anticipation.

She smoothed her hands along the top of his hair first, the thick strands acting as a barrier between her fingers and his skin. Slowly, incrementally, he relaxed back into her, allowing his eyes to fall closed once more. It was then that her clever fingers dived into the strands, coming to rest against his scalp. He tensed once more, and she kept her fingers achingly still while he waged a silent war with himself. He fought against the specter of his brother. Jordie would not take this from him.

“Go on,” he rasped, desperate for her touch and dreading it all the same.

The pads of her fingers rubbed in soothing circles against his scalp, and he let out a breath. It felt good. She became more vigorous in her movements, and spread out across his head. She rubbed over the parts on the sides where his hair was shaved close, and through the silky wet strands on the top.

Kaz felt like a cat laid out in a patch of sunlight, boneless and utterly unconcerned with life. He lost track of time as she washed his hair, pausing occasionally to pour fresh water over it. Her gentle ministrations brought his erection raging back to life. Could she see it from where she sat? He found that he didn’t even care anymore. He just wanted her to never stop what she was doing. Ever.

He felt floaty, like he wasn’t attached to his body anymore. Time meant nothing, and the moments stretched and warped around him. He was surprised when she spoke, and realized that she had pulled her fingertips from his hair, no longer touching him.

“Sit up for me, Kaz” Inej said, and he did as he was told. He felt malleable, and open to her suggestions in this moment. She could have asked him to go riding through the streets, clad only in Master Crimson’s red cape, proclaiming himself to be King of Ketterdam, and he would probably at least give it a few moment’s thought.

She rose, and circled around in front of him, bringing the basin with her. She sat cross legged before him, and reached for his leg. She wrapped one hand around the back of his clothed knee, and used the rag to wrap the other around his ankle. She lifted his leg and stretched it, until his foot was lying in her lap. She eased his sock off, and he leaned back on his hands and let her.

She dipped the rag back into the water, and began to wash his ankle and foot. She was not so achingly delicate, this time. Would wrap the cloth around his foot and knead her thumbs in. Digging in and rubbing hard. She worked him to the point of discomfort, occasionally, but would pull back if she saw him wince. He worked hard to focus on her ministrations, ignoring his hard cock and the flaming red of his cheeks at the thought that it was likely clearly visible to her in this position.

She did not comment on it, though, so neither did he.

She swapped his feet at some point, taking extra care as she moved and manipulated his bad leg. He stared across at her while she worked. She was concentrated, a small furrow between her brows, and Kaz was filled with a sudden and all-encompassing desire to kiss it away.

When she was done with his feet and ankles she told him to stand. When they were both upright, a hand’s breadth away in the middle of his room, she reached for the laces on his breeches, and he grabbed her wrists to stop her, without even thinking about it.

It was hardly the most intimate thing that had passed between them that evening, but the simplicity of the act took his breath away. It was so easy to lay his bare hands upon her bare wrists, and yet it was also the hardest thing he’d ever done.

And he’d done it without thinking twice.

He met her eyes, asking silently. Is this okay? What is this? Why are you doing this? What is going to happen? Her eyes responded full of reassurance, and he quirked an eyebrow at her, infinitesimally. He knew she would know what he meant. It seemed that they’d always been able to do this. Speak without words. Jesper liked to tease them about it, their easy telepathy, but to Kaz it was as natural as breathing.

She nodded a little and he dropped his hands, allowing her to undo his trousers and slide them down over his hips. She knelt before him and helped him to step out of them, tossing them aside. Kaz’s hard cock bobbed near her face. If there was any doubt in her mind about the condition she’d left him in before, it was surely gone now. She politely ignored it, however, and reached for the rag once more.

She remained on her knees before him, sweeping up and down his thighs with broad strokes. She reached around him, smoothing the rag over his buttocks, down the back of his thighs.

The hilarity of the moment struck him then, as he carefully angled his hips to avoid brushing his cock against her while she practically had her arms wrapped around his waist. He cast around for something else to look at to avoid bursting into a unseemly fit of giggles, and bit his lip to keep them in.

And then she came back around to his front and he wasn’t close to laughter anymore.

Inej brought the cloth to his inner thighs, rubbing gently at the sensitive skin there, and Kaz threw his head back in pleasure. He bit down on his fist to keep from groaning. This was torture, but he never wanted it to end.

Suddenly, the touch of the rag was gone, and he looked down to find Inej looking up at him through her thick lashes. She gazed at his consideringly for a long moment, and then reached out to grip his cock. She wrapped the cloth around him and slowly ran her hand along his length, from his balls all the way to the tip.

He really did groan then, overcome with sensation. Inej smiled a little and continued her ministrations, careful to ensure that the rag remained in between their skin at all times.

He shook and whimpered in her hold, and reached out to grab onto one of her shoulders for balance.

She worked him steadily, and his orgasm grew and grew, threatening to overtake him at any minute.

“Inej,” he bit out, before he had even properly decided that he was going to ask. She looked up, her hands stilling upon his cock. “Will you kiss me?” he whispered, the words hanging between them in the still of the room.

She smiled softly, and rose to her feet, never letting go of him as she did. She reached towards him with her mouth, resuming her rubbing and standing on her tiptoes to reach. He bent a little, and they met in the middle. It felt like they had left their own world, and travelled into another where this kind of thing was allowed. Where Kaz could kiss Inej, his cock in her hand, and feel nothing but pleasure. The soft darkness wrapped around them, cocooning them and cutting them off from anything that was not Kaz and Inej and their shared touch.

His chapped lips pressed against her smooth ones, and sparks raced through Kaz’s bloodstream. He felt utterly awake, as if every nerve ending in his body were bared to her. She moved her lips against his, encouraging him to part his lips to hers. One hand still rested on her shoulder, and he reached the other out to rest on the small of her back. Her tongue reached out, brushing over his teeth and pressing against his. Shuddering, Kaz came apart in her hands, spilling into the rag.

His hips bucked and he broke the kiss, allowing his head to fall onto her shoulder. His orgasm raced through him, and he tightened the arm around her back involuntarily.

He was naked before her, safe in her hold, and he lost track of the world around him. Tears sprang to his eyes, but he held them in. He would not sully a moment such as this by crying. Inej rocked gently from side to side on her feet, and he swayed with her, in a gentle and rhythmless dance.

He came back into himself slowly, and found that she was speaking softly in his ear.

“That was so good, Kaz, you did so good for me,” she murmured. He let himself be rocked and comforted, allowed Inej to fill up all his senses until there was nothing left but her. In this moment, nothing in the world mattered but her.

Gently, she wiped him off, and allowed the rag to fall into the basin at their feet. The moment broke with the splash, and he raised his head, looking down into her eyes. They were dark, and full of love, but that might have just been a reflection of his own, bouncing back at him.

“Let’s get you into bed,” she said. Normally he would never entertain sleeping this early, but it was as if her words cast a spell upon him. His eyelids drooped and his head felt full of cotton wool all of the sudden.

She pressed him back, walking with him towards the bed, and sat on the side of it as he climbed under the covers.

“Goodnight, Kaz” she said, smiling down at him.

“I want to do for you what you did for me,” he said. Despite all that had passed between them, the words still felt raw and embarrassing.

She smiled wide, and he felt drunk on the site of it. He was heavy limbed and sated in the bed, and floated in a haze of bliss.

She bent down and pressed a final kiss to his lips. “You can repay me some other time,” she murmured against them, and then stood to go.

She paused in the doorway, backlit by the lamp in the hallway.

“Sleep well,” she said, and he was asleep before she fully shut the door.