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the languages of tendernesss

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It started out so easily, an almost instinctual impulse — when they’d be lounging on the couch, or curled up in bed, or when he’d lay his head in her lap after a long day, closing his eyes and exhaling softly onto her thighs — to splay her fingers and gently run them through his hair. She’d sink into the mindless rhythm of it, carefully working out knots, curling her fingertips into the soft strands and teasing them apart.

One day, while they were watching one of his favorite re-runs of House Hunters International, he hummed when she changed the angle of her hand to lightly brush his scalp with her fingernails. “You quite enjoy that, don’t you?” He said, peering up at her sidelong from her lap, his voice warm and slow, the way it got when he was drowsy and relaxed.

“You know,” she said, fingertips reaching the base of his neck, where she started circulating them in small circles, “I do.” She leaned down and planted a kiss at his temple.

“Abbie,” he rumbled, immediately leaning into her touch. It still undid her, the way he’d started using her name like this when they were alone, the syllables virtually a caress. He reached up, cupping her cheek, and she leaned down farther to give him a real kiss. She might not be able to use her voice or words the way he did, but she had other ways of showing him what she was feeling, and when she had him gasping underneath her she knew the message was received.

*

“Crane, seriously, let me help,” she said, raising her eyebrows at him in the mirror. She was about thirty seconds away from crossing her arms over her chest and tapping her foot, no joke.

“I am perfectly capable of securing my own locks, thank you very much,” he sniped at her over his shoulder in a muffled voice, a leather tie dangling from his teeth and both his hands in the air, trying to gather his hair up.

“You left behind ‘perfectly capable’ five minutes ago when I finished getting ready first,” she said, and gesturing down at the outfit she’d put on for their night out. He’d been in here fifteen minutes and somehow still looked like a mess. “There were at least ten different pieces of clothing and accessories involved in putting this together, but here I am, right on time for our reservation.”

“Very well, very well,” he said, his eyes going up like he was praying for patience, and wasn’t that just ironic. “I capitulate.” He grabbed the leather tie and stretched his arm out, offering it to her.

“Thank you,” she said, mollified. “Sit on the bed,” she said. While he did that, she grabbed the comb and the brush from the dresser. The brush was heavy and it was antique horsehair, the bristles so tightly packed together that the surface felt solid.

Gathering his hair at the base of his neck, she set aside the brush and started with the wide tooth comb instead, beginning with the tips of his hair and working her way up to the roots. She ran her fingers through every few passes, and once they stopped catching, she gathered his hair at the back of his head and picked up the horsehair brush. She went from top of his forehead to the tips of his hair, careful not to put too much pressure. His hair smoothed out after a few passes, a slight natural shine coming through, and she repeated the process on the bottom, brushing in the strands that wanted to fly away at the base of his neck.

When she was satisfied, she brought the leather tie up, pinched the ponytail, and looped the tie around a few times before knotting it securely.

“There, all done.” She said, giving him a pat on the shoulder. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”

“That was...” Ichabod tilted his head, turning to look at himself in the mirror. “Remarkably painless and, despite my initial misgivings, rather pleasurable.” He reached up, delicately skimming his fingertips over the top of her handiwork. “You must teach me how you achieved such a thing.”

“Sorry,” she said, nudging him to get up. “Trade secret. Besides, we’re late and I’m hungry.”

“Of course,” he said, shaking himself slightly and refocusing. He stood up, bending at the waist and offering her his arm with a flourish, transitioning right into full-on charming mode. “Shall we, my lady?”

She took it, curling her fingers snugly into the crook of his elbow and gave him a winning smile. “We shall,” she echoed, and they fell into step together.

*

They started to establish their little rituals and routines, inasmuch as they had on the few days when the world wasn’t being terrorized, demonized, or otherwise supernaturally harassed.

He’d draw her hot water baths for her feet after a long day, carefully massaging out the knots with some type of salve he’d concocted that he swore would leave her skin soft as dew-kissed rose petals. She didn’t know about all that, but it smelled nice, fresh like newly cut grass and a hint of honeysuckle. About when he’d start kissing up her calves was when she’d turn the TV off, pulling him close, and their shadows would flicker against the walls in candlelight.

She’d bring him tea when he was reading — brewed to his military-precise specifications, by the way — and then make him move over so she could sit behind him and let him lay back against her. He’d start reading out loud, and she would close her eyes, enjoying the rumble of his voice, curling her arm around him to rest her hand on his chest above his heartbeat. She found the pulse immensely reassuring.

After their showers, she’d have him sit on the floor at the foot of the bed while she worked out his tangles. She liked to towel-dry his hair, keep things simple, and how she’d style it would depend on her mood. Some days it was a basic ponytail, other times a tight bun, and when they were staying in she’d do a single, thick braid. There was something about seeing the styled waves in his hair when she let it out, running her fingers through them and knowing that only she got to see him like this, that only she had this particular privilege.

At first he’d found her attention amusing, teasing her that she seemed more concerned with his grooming regimen than her own. But today, she could feel him basking in it, rubbing his thumb along the hollow in her ankle while she worked. He leaned back into her hands as she gave him a scalp massage; she worked the pads of her fingers into the pressure points along his hairline, eliciting soft sounds from him.

“You are exceedingly skilled at that,” he said, practically purring.

She knew she had him because he didn’t even stir when a terrible Jefferson impersonator appeared onscreen in a used car sale commercial, making poorly-written puns about Independence Day and prices exploding like fireworks.

“You be a good boy and there’s more where that came from,” she said, leaning down to murmur in his ear, letting her lips brush against the curve. “I might even bust out a French braid.”

“My, what provocation,” he chuckled back, pressing his fingers along the inside arch of her foot like he was playing a piano. “I shall endeavor to be the very epitome of well-behaved.”

“I’ll be the judge of that,” she said, dropping a quick kiss on the crown of his head.

She turned her face and rested her cheek there, just inhaling him for a moment; he smelled like pine trees, wood smoke, and faintly of the coconut-shea butter shampoo she’d convinced him to use. Sometimes it scared her, how comfortable this already felt, how much she already needed it more than she’d let herself in a long time. Sometimes she didn’t want to let herself enjoy it, waiting for the ground to drop out from under her. Sometimes —

She stopped herself, reaching down and hugging him from behind. His hands came up to rest on top of hers, and he seemed to sense the shift in her mood, because he interlaced his fingers with hers, running this thumb reassuringly along the base of her palm. She decided right then that today wasn’t going to be one of those days, and damned if tomorrow would, either.

*

“Send her home!” She yelled at the TV screen. The judges were having a drawn out debate about all the desserts contestant number four had prepared, but this lady was sobbing over cupcakes. Abby had no mercy.

“Is the intent of this pastime not relaxation?” Ichabod said, kneading his knuckles into her shoulders. He hit an especially tender muscle and she inhaled sharply. Since he knew her, he waited a second, and then doubled down on the pressure, not letting up.

“Mmm, yeah, right there,” she said, closing her eyes. Maybe she could let the cupcake thing go, if he’d just keep doing that.

“Better,” he said, working at the edges of the knot. “Your agitation over these inexpertly prepared pastries and confections is most unsettling.”

“Mmhm, right,” she mumbled mindlessly, sinking back against his hands, closing her eyes. She was on the floor between his legs and he was seated above her.

Sensing her surrender, he went at it with renewed effort, using the deep pressure she preferred and digging his thumbs in where her shoulders met her neck.

He worked methodically and doggedly, returning again and again to the same knots until they loosened. In between attacks, he’d skim his fingertips over her skin lightly, letting her catch her breath.

She couldn’t deny that the man knew how to use his hands; she felt weeks of tension melting away. By the time he was done, she was loose and boneless, her head resting against his knee and her muscles buzzing pleasantly. He’d turned the TV off at some point and she hadn’t even noticed.

She rolled her shoulders, enjoying the slight pops of everything settling back into place. “That was just what I needed, baby, thanks,” she said, giving his calf a light squeeze.

“The pleasure was entirely mine, my love.” He said, stroking his hands over her gently; her hair, her shoulders, her arms. It was raining outside, the drops pelting against the windows at a steady patter. The light was slowly fading, his candles starting to cast soft halos in the room as the sun dimmed; she sighed lightly, feeling a rare, bone-deep contentment.

“Abbie,” he said, a note of hesitance in his voice. “I have a query.”

“Hmm?” She said.

“I — that is —” He paused, and she could feel him searching for what he wanted to say. His hand moved up from her shoulder, and he gathered her hair at the nape of her neck. “May I?”

“May you what?” She said, starting to worry about where this extra weirdness was coming from.

“Attempt a French braid?” He said hesitantly, sounding all the world like he was asking permission just to think it.

“Uh…” She didn’t want to offend him, because she could tell his heart was in the right place, but she didn’t let just anybody get near her hair. Plus, the way he handled his own didn’t exactly inspire confidence.

“You needn’t worry,” he said hastily, probably already sensing the world of skepticism heading his way. The fingers of his other hand tapped out a nervous rhythm on her shoulders. “In anticipation of this moment, I have availed myself of Miss Jenny’s tutelage.”

“You what now?” She said, arching her neck to look up at him, her eyebrows furrowing.

“Well, you see, I had noticed your interest in the matter, and naturally that piqued my interest in the matter. Upon further reflection, I did not feel it was right that solely due to my ignorance, I could not reciprocate the care and tenderness that you have shown me. Thus, I sought out Miss Jenny’s counsel.”

“Oh, Crane,” she said, shaking her head, because she didn’t even know where to start. He could be so sweet, so ridiculous, and make her heart clench all at the same time. It went way beyond baffling.

“I assure you that the lessons were numerous and painstaking, and may I say that she is far less patient an instructor than I would have preferred. However in this instance, her assistance did prove invaluable. I believe I acquitted myself rather well, all told.” She didn’t have to look at him to know that his chest was more than a little puffed out by the time he finished.

“Well, in that case,” she said, grinning because she really couldn’t help it, “you may.” She straightened up to position herself better, pulled her hairband off her wrist and held it up for him.

“Splendid,” he said, eagerly, taking it from her. He spent a few minutes aflutter and leaning this way and that way; she recognized him strategizing, trying to decide how best to proceed. She could be patient. She trusted that Jenny wouldn’t have unleashed him on her without making sure she was in good hands.

When he did finally make his move, he portioned a section of her hair with such care, as if he were afraid it would crumble if he breathed too hard. He muttered softly to himself, yes, this one, then the other, and although he was moving practically in slow motion it didn’t feel like anything alarming.

He was halfway down when he said, “No, this won’t do at all, far too sloppy, Miss Jenny would not approve,” and unwound it all to start again. She managed to bite her lip to keep from laughing out loud, knowing he’d take it entirely the wrong way at this moment.

It took another few minutes, but he got the hang of it. He worked slowly and precisely, and he was careful not to pull too hard but this time around but he pulled tightly enough that she could feel it coming together. Abbie closed her eyes, a sudden surge of familiarity buzzing through her as his fingers worked.

Before their mother had gone to Tarrytown, she remembered, they did this. The three of them in the kitchen, just us girls, mama would say, and she and Jenny perched on the stool in turn. She loved the feeling of her mother’s fingers carefully parting her hair, quick and decisive. Sometimes they’d go to a neighbor’s house, but Abbie preferred when they were at home, when she and Jenny had their mother’s undivided attention.

Mama liked twists and large braids; Jenny always had an opinion about what she wanted, which seemed to change daily, and they’d bicker. Abbie, though, she wasn’t too picky. She was just happy that mama was there, period, because if they were in the kitchen that meant mama was doing well. She was with them. It wasn’t always — wasn’t usually — the case.

A feeling of longing lodged in her throat at the memories, a bittersweetness at what she had lost and the preciousness of those moments, the love she had felt when she sat on that stool, when her mama was able to take care of her. She inhaled a stuttering breath, eyes watering.

“Abbie?” Ichabod said, instantly alert and going completely still. “Have I done something that has caused you harm?”

She couldn’t shake her head because he was still holding the ends of her hair and she didn’t want to undo his work, so she let the breath out slowly, shakily. “No,” she finally said, giving his leg a reassuring squeeze. “No, I just… I was remembering.”

“Ah,” he said, pausing a moment. His fingers resumed, finishing up the end and tying it off quickly. “There we are. I…”

He moved back so that he could get off the couch, coming down to the floor and sitting next to her. She saw his concerned expression in her peripheral vision, but couldn’t quite bring herself to face him.

“Difficult memories?” He inquired gently, placing his hand over hers. She grabbed it, squeezing hard, and he held on just as tight.

“Good ones,” she said, because she needed to say it, and she shook her head, laughing because she didn’t know what else to do. “Hard, but good. Most of what stuck with me was the bad, but I have to remember that we still got some time with her.” A few tears tracked down, and she didn’t try to stop them. “Even if it wasn’t nearly enough.”

“Nowhere near,” he agreed. He reached up and carefully wiped her tears away with his thumb, his touch soft. “Both you and Miss Jenny deserved so much more.”

“Yeah,” she said, nodding fiercely. “Yeah, we did.”

She sighed, scooting closer to him to drop her head onto his shoulder. He lifted his arm and tucked himself around her, and rested his cheek on the top of her head. She wrapped her arms around him, bunching her hands in his shirt, and just held on, let herself rest against his solidity.

And sitting there on the floor, listening to the rain and watching the room sink into night, Abbie haltingly found the words to talk about those moments, pulling them out of herself piece by piece, inch by stubborn inch. Miraculously, it got a little easier with each successive word, the ache dulling and something opening in her chest, giving her the space to breathe, even to smile. Ichabod held her close and listened.

*

The next night, they were side by side in bed; Ichabod was reading a book with a title so long and arcane she’d already forgotten what it was called, and she was flipping through Grace’s journal at random, jotting down notes on a yellow pad every now and then when something caught her eye.

“Abbie,” Ichabod said, putting his thumb in his book and turning to face in her direction.

“Hm?” She said, finishing up the sentence she was writing — knowing what I know now, makes me think about the underground railroad and what else they might have been fighting — before looking up at him.

“Regarding what transpired yesterday,” he said, his fingers picking at the hem of the blanket as he spoke, but his gaze as he looked at her was steady. “I wanted to thank you.”

“Thank me?” She said, looking at him quizzically. “For what, exactly?”

“I…” Ichabod bit his lip, reaching out for her hand. “I want you to know that I deeply value the trust that you have placed in me. That you shared these moments with me, these memories that in all the time I have known you, you have so steadfastly pushed away — Abbie, that you would bare your heart so openly is an incomparable gift, one that I shall never take for granted.”

He brought his hand up to cup her cheek; his eyes were so earnest, so incredibly tender that she felt her breath hitch just being on the receiving end of it.

“Though I am powerless to change the past, I hope that I might do my part to bring some measure of contentment to your future.” He pressed a kiss to her forehead. “For you, Grace Abigail Mills, deserve nothing short of enduring joy. You are a woman of rare magnificence; not only blessed with prodigious valor, but exceptional compassion and remarkable intelligence.”

She broke eye contact, burying her face in his neck. “Ichabod,” she whispered, unable to say anything else.

“Forgive me if I have discomfited you.” He said, misunderstanding her tone; he started to pull away, but she didn’t let him.

She laughed quietly just below his ear. She enjoyed the slight shudder that went through him when she did it. “Not that at all. I, just… you caught me off guard.” She nudged his ear, nipping at the bottom lightly. “Actually, as a modern boyfriend and all, you should know you can never go wrong telling me I’m amazing.”

He made a sound in the back of his throat as her tongue flicked across his earlobe. “I see,” he exhaled roughly, tilting his neck at the perfect angle for her to pepper kisses underneath his jawline; she accepted the invitation, continuing to nip lightly as she went. “If such is the case, you may want to prepare yourself, my love — for I shall gladly exhaust the limits of mortal language doing just so,” he said, and though his tone was light, she somehow knew he meant every word.

“Correction,” she said, leaning back and making sure she was looking him right in the eye to make her intent crystal clear. “You’re gonna have to be the one to prepare yourself,” she snaked her hand down his front to drive it home, “because I’m about to do things to you that you never even dreamed of.”

When her fingers wrapped around him, his jaw dropped and all that emerged was a wordless sound of need.

She leaned in, letting the heat seep into her voice. “My turn,” she said, and spent the next hour rendering him completely, beautifully, speechless.