This entire situation was more than a little bit upsetting, to say the least.
Inej had stayed with him the night before. It had gone alright, for lack of a more eloquent phrasing. Not great, but not the worst.
He’d woken up with a nightmare in the middle of the night, as he did frequently. It hadn’t been a calm one, like it usually was, but it hadn’t sent him into one of those all night long kind of panic attacks, so he’d called it a win on that end.
It had, however, woken Inej up, and he’d returned from a trip to the bathroom to find her confused and worried about where he’d ran off to at three bells in the morning. Despite their best efforts, neither of them quite fell into a peaceful sleep after that.
When the morning actually rolled around, the sun finally beginning to rise to meet them, she’d turned on her side to face him. As soon as he’d realized what she was trying to prompt, he did the same; he was glad of it, too, with the smile she’d put on when he did.
“I need to go back this afternoon. They’ll be worried,” she whispered, reaching up to brush his hair back with the tips of her fingers.
The majority of her hand was covered up, completely enveloped by the too-long sleeves of the shirt she’d borrowed the night before, and despite this extra protection, she still kept her touch feather-light, barely grazing his skin.
The nature of it was so painstakingly tender, gentle enough that his eyes closed the second he realized what she was doing.
“So what if they’re worried,” he mumbled, reaching up to lay his hand over hers, lightly enough that it wouldn’t be misunderstood as a prompt to remove it. “Let them worry.”
He heard her chuckle a bit, shaking her hand beneath his. “That would be cruel,” she whispered.
Then, she was moving forwards slowly, rustling the sheets as she did so. She stopped, close enough to his face that he could feel her breath. Long enough for him to push her away, if he didn’t want what she was attempting to do, and indicative enough that he was able to tell what that was.
Even slower than the way she’d moved closer, she tilted her head up. Then, there were lips pressing against his forehead, so soft and light that he might not have noticed them, if he hadn’t known they were going to be there. It felt like the butterflies and ladybugs back home, landing lightly enough that they only felt like the ghost of a touch.
It would be cruel to leave me here, too, he wanted to tell her, as she pulled away. After a day like the last one, after the past few hours they’d spent in this very spot, lying side-by-side. After she’d spoken to him so kindly after he’d come back from that nightmare last night, kindly enough to make their cruel world seem kind.
She moved her hand down, cupping the side of his face with that same sleeve-covered hand. He would’ve sworn, if he didn’t know better, that she was trying to kill him. These little actions were filled with so much care, he honestly didn’t think he would be angry about it
“I’ll come back tomorrow. We could go out to breakfast,” she suggested, gently rubbing his cheek with her thumb.
He smiled, cracking an eye open, only to find her much, much closer than he’d thought she was. “We could go do that today,” he said quietly, taking that smartass tone of someone who did not like their presented options.
She rolled her eyes, still with her fond half-smile, and moved forwards once more. A kiss, one of the lightest he’d ever received, right on the corner of his mouth.
Then, she pulled back entirely, sitting up slowly. “If you wanted, you could always come to me,” she said, stretching before swinging her legs over the side of the bed, back now facing him.
She’d mentioned this idea plenty of times. It wasn’t that he was against going to her. It was just that… well, he was against the idea of being in someone else’s house.
It felt like a decent enough reason for him, really. If only for nights like the one before, where he’d woken up gasping and tangled in sweat soaked bed sheets, trying to get himself out and over Inej’s very asleep body to get to the bathroom so he wouldn’t hurl all over the nice quilt she’d brought him from Ravka.
The thought of those events playing out in a room other than his own, in a house that did not belong to him, let alone having to explain the running his friends might hear at a, frankly, stupid hour of the morning… he’d rather climb into a vat of lukewarm oil.
“I think I’ll wait until tomorrow,” he mumbled, sitting up and watching as she crossed the room in a less-than-calm, purposely loud, almost rage.
She shook her head a bit, motions contained enough that she most certainly thought that he couldn’t see it. “I’m going to get dressed,” she grumbled, disappearing around the corner and to the bathroom.
Before he could say anything else, the door was slamming shut behind her.
Somehow, the whole plan detailing how to keep his business to himself was thrown out the window, almost entirely, within twelve hours of watching Inej half-stomp around his room that morning.
The day had gone relatively smoothly, after she’d left, except for the mind-occupying conflict that he fought with all day long. He hated making her upset. Hated it. He’d rather climb into a vat of hot oil than make her upset.
Either way, that situation kept him particularly on edge all day. This wasn’t a problem until the Liddies showed up on Fifth Harbor, yet again, and he went into it with weapons firing rather than with his negotiation skills at hand.
They’d been outnumbered from the beginning, which wasn’t typically a huge problem, seeing as the other side were a bunch of incompetent assholes when it came to combat.
Today, though, he’d gone in just as stupid as the other side. Spiderless and at the back of the battle, where nobody was there to watch his back, even from the ground level.
It was this mistake, along with his already-angered fighting, that landed him with a bruiser’s bare forearm around his neck.
Immediately, that all-consuming panic replaced the anger, and he was fighting the desperate need to gag as he beat his way out of it. In under thirty seconds, the man had a bullet in his skull.
The rest of the fight ended within minutes, and the Dregs cleared the area, heading back for The Slat.
He remained along that same strip of land, gasping for breath against a brick wall, trying to make it appear as though it had just been the exertion that got to him. It took him far, far too long to realize that maybe, facing the exact place that he’d crawled back on shore wasn’t the best way to calm down.
So, the moment his body felt sturdy enough to carry him, he was gone.
He went in the direction that he’d come from, supposedly concealing the panic well enough, seeing as nobody tried to jump him as he walked the line between the Zelvar District and the Barrel. It was a battle, though, to do so -- one that he wasn’t sure he could keep up for the entire walk back to The Slat.
He almost questioned it. Almost.
You could always come to me.
When the turn that he’d need to take to get to the Van Eck mansion came up, he stopped for only a brief moment. Only for long enough to question the reaction she’d have, seeing him show up in need of help after their little… disagreement this morning.
It was determined almost immediately that whatever reaction that would be, it would likely pale in comparison to the reaction she’d have to finding him beaten and bruised from an ambush the next day, and he made the turn without any further hesitation.
After about ten more minutes of wandering, only half sure that it was in the right direction, he found himself on the porch of the Van Eck mansion.
He was still sweating and shaking, being thrown between memories of the barge and reality like it was some kind of game with his mind, but at least he’d made it there. That was what he had been most worried about, in the mix of it all -- passing out on the street and turning up someplace he did not want to be.
Unluckily enough for him, Inej was not the person who answered the door when he knocked.
It was Jesper, with his wide smile and friendly demeanor, both far too cheery for someone who was residing in Ketterdam, despite the move from the Barrel.
“Kaz! Did you come for-” and then his smile fell, very obviously just beginning to assess the state of his friend. “Are you alright? You look like hell, man. Come in,” he said, pulling the door wide open.
And by the grace of every single one of her Saints, Inej was there before Jesper could even call for her, watching his too-fast breaths and shaking hands, as though she was personally responsible for making sure he didn’t pass out.
He pulled at his coat, trying to get the light pressure of it off of the base of his neck. It still felt like he was suffocating, even when he took deep breaths, even though the fabric was nowhere near tight enough to choke him.
He only half-registered Jesper calling over to Wylan, then the merchling rushing out of the kitchen and to the entryway. The last thing he wanted was more people around, but he couldn’t quite find it in himself to speak through the gasping breaths he still hadn’t quite managed to slow.
The other boys both pulled on their coats by the door as Inej helped him to get his own off, holding his cane and undoing the few buttons that he couldn’t quite manage, with his shaking hands. It felt like he was living through an earthquake, inside of a very dirty, very full fishbowl. His vision was cloudy, as though he’d just woken up, and that along with the muffled hearing and the whole-body shaking made it feel as though he was entirely, one-hundred percent powerless.
It was as he fumbled with his tie that his friends opened the door, stepping outside. “Hope you feel better soon, boss,” Jesper said quietly, almost timid, as he pulled the door closed. Even through his panicked haze, he noticed the extra bit of care he took to not let it slam, bringing it all the way to the lock before letting go.
He and Inej stayed in the entryway for a while yet, trying to get his waistcoat off, as well, hoping that the smaller number of layers might help him feel a little bit less crowded.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Inej asked quietly as he managed to slip the vest off, passing back his cane.
He shook his head once or twice, attempting to hang his waistcoat and tie over the banister, frustrated beyond what was probably reasonable as they continued to slip. “Okay, okay, stop,” she said softly. “I’ll take it. Just breathe.”
She took the extra clothes out of his hand gently, the same way she handled most things with him, and slung them over her arm. “Let’s go sit. I’ll get you a glass of water, we can-”
“Stay,” he managed to choke out through the dizziness and the shallow breaths, interrupting her mid-sentence.
She stopped, looking at him with wide eyes. “Okay. I’ll stay,” she said quietly. “Let’s sit down on the step here, actually,” she said, taking an extra concerned look in her eyes, one that she hadn’t put on in a long while, with him. Not even last night.
He followed her, albeit unsteadily, to the step she was talking about. She held an arm out to help him make it, to make sure that he wouldn’t fall in the midst of the dizziness, and he let himself reach out, touching it only lightly to help him figure out his footing.
Once they were both sitting not-so-comfortably on the ground, that was when everything stopped. He’d expected to pass out, for everything to go black and to wake up lying down on the ground, or maybe propped up against something.
He hadn’t expected himself to break down in tears, ones that weren’t caused by any sort of choking or gagging, but from the feelings.
“Kaz,” Inej mumbled, setting both the things in her lap to the side before turning to face him. “Breathe, please. You’re alright,” she whispered. “Can I put my hand on your back?”
And without fully thinking of how badly that might go, given the situation, he nodded in permission.
Then, wasting no time at all and with a regular kind of weight, her hand was resting on the center of his back, rubbing in wide circles. His breathing stopped entirely as he waited for the nausea to come, for the completely overwhelming feeling of ‘no’ to wash over him.
It took a bit longer than usual, this time, but when it did, he was sorry.
He pushed forward, back breaking contact with her hand as he moved himself away faster than either of them expected, leaving her shocked and him absolutely frantic. “Alright,” she whispered, moving off of the step to meet his eyes. “I’m sorry. That was a bad idea, I’m sorry. Breathe, Kaz.”
Damn right, it had been a bad idea. A bad, horrible fucking idea. “I can’t,” he practically shouted, frustrated and exhausted down to the bones.
“You can,” she said, just as firm, looking him in the eyes with that stone-hard fury that seemed to only appear when she’d just been yelled at. “You’re alive. You’re breathing. So, breathe deeper. Stop looking at me like that.”
He looked her straight in the eyes, anger once again building into something unmanageable. “I was trying that. For the past seven city blocks. It doesn’t work,” he said, pinching his eyes shut tight, running a hand through his hair hard, barely keeping enough pressure off to prevent him from pulling his hair out.
“It does work. You’ve done it before. You’ve been starting to do it, since we’ve been sitting here. Now, do it better.”
He scoffed, looking over to meet her eyes, baffled and, frankly, still just as angry. “What the fuck is this, combat training? I can’t just do it better. That’s the point,” he said, getting progressively louder, progressively more frustrated that she’d say that, when she knew.
But, she was looking at him funny, in that knowing way that she did when she’d just said something that proved him wrong. “What?” he asked, sitting up straighter, palms going to his legs to stop him from over-exaggerating too much. He was pissed, but not pissed enough to make her feel threatened.
“Well, you’re doing it badly, and you insist on doing an excellent job at everything. Are you accepting that you’re shitty at this, or are you going to become excellent?” she asked, that serious look of proposing a challenge finding its way to her eyes.
For a moment, he was angrier than before, because he was certainly not in a position to be given a challenge, let alone one to try to improve something. And then, he realized, and his face fell. “You want me to get better at breathing?”
She nodded, still all-too-serious, looking him in the eyes. “At breathing correctly, so you don’t pass out and slam your head into the staircase,” she corrected. “Or, you can admit defeat, and I’ll hire someone to nurse your concussion.”
It was when he felt the urge to smile, maybe even laugh at that joke, that he realized what she’d done. “That’s cruel, Captain,” he stated, expression still stone cold.
He took that moment to assess his own body, what he felt beside the leftovers of that deep-seated anger and the panic that had managed to find its grip on him. Still shaking, a bit. Still a little dizzy. Hearing clearly. Seeing clearly. Not about to slip off of the six-inch step off the ground.
“Only the best for you,” she said quietly, no longer almost screaming. In fact, that fond half-smile had come back a bit from this morning. She moved to sit beside him on the step again, this time putting a bit more space between the two of them. “Feeling better?”
He sighed, looking down at the ground. “If ‘better’ is the same as ‘like I walked out of a gun fight’,” he grumbled, because he was all too familiar with what was coming to him, after he dropped down from that high. The aching muscles and the headache that would make him wish he’d taken her up on that offer to get water.
She shrugged, picking up his tie from beside her and running the soft satin through her fingers. “Well, at least you walked out. You don’t have to panic so badly, then.”
“Not for a while,” he mumbled, letting his eyes close as he took a deep breath, thankful that even with the shaking and the less than favorable aftereffects he’d be getting, at least he could catch a full breath. Like coming up for air after drowning.
She looked up at him, flashing him just a half-second’s worth of that small grin that he adored so much. “Jes was right. You look like hell. Let’s get some water, come on,” she said, standing and holding an arm out again, just in case.
He did not take it.
Instead, using his cane and a decent amount of help from the staircase railing a few feet away, he stood on his own. Together, still, they walked to the kitchen.
After drinking enough water to feed the entirety of the Dregs, they made their way upstairs.
It was there that he found out that Inej had stolen one pair of his sleep trousers and three of his dress shirts, including one that was a part of an entire suit, just in case. He couldn’t find it in himself to be mad, after finding that he did need it, after all.