Kaz let out a grunt of pain and then shook his hands in frustration.
“Go ahead,” she smirked, unable to stop herself from ogling him as he begrudgingly unbuttoned his vest. She didn’t have the heart to remind him that technically he should be taking it off. He seemed quite flustered by how badly he was losing to her. Cheeks flushed, hair slightly out of place, breathing through his nose to keep his anger to himself.
The vest now hanging loosely he reset his hands just above her own, his palms facing down, hers facing up. There was only the tiniest sliver of space between them, but it was enough for her to see him swallow hard. A flare of pity in her chest made her question if she was pushing this too far, too fast. Then she remembered who she was dealing with.
“Fuck,” he growled and looked away from her, rubbing at the tops of his hands. “This is…”
“Fun?” she offered. He shot her a warning look.
He started to shrug out of his vest and she shook her head.
“Changed my mind, leave the vest. Unbutton your shirt next.”
His hands stalled, “those weren’t the rules.”
“Need to keep this interesting,” she teased and swung her braid over her shoulder. She glanced at his desk where all the spoils of her victories lay. His cane, his hat, his coat, his gloves, his tie, his belt, all the odds and ends from his pockets. Technically she could have demanded his boots next but this was decidedly more entertaining.
He rolled his eyes as he undid his topmost black button at his throat, and then rose a challenging eyebrow at her. She nodded in concession and set her hands back out.
“You shouldn’t be smiling,” he murmured as he reset his hands.
“And why’s that?” She grinned back at him. She moved her hands a fraction of an inch and he yanked his own back to avoid the smack - that didn’t come. Her laugh filled the quiet of his office and she wiggled her fingers to entice him back.
“Switch,” he darkly answered. She gracefully flipped her hands over so that Kaz could slide his own, palms up, just barely underneath them.
While he adjusted, flexing his fingers and narrowing his eyes at the hint of contact, she noticed the flush from his cheeks had started to bleed down his neck. Her brain immediately came up with a thousand questions that distracted her from the task at hand. Did the flush go further down? Was it only from losing? Could there be other ways she could make him look as flustered as she felt sometimes? Is that one of the reasons he was always covered head to foot? Would she ever be able to convince him to wear something other than black?
“Inej?” He asked and she was startled out of her thoughts. “Did I just send you into a catatonic state?”
She nodded, “something like that.”
Their eyes met and he smirked, “even Saint’s get bored?”
“Hardly,” she answered and wiggled her fingers again. This time the pads gently tapped against the base of his palms. “Just wondering about things.”
Without any kind of indication, he whipped his hands up and around and landed a resounding smack to the tops of her hands. She stood there shocked, the pain radiating up toward her wrists, as a wicked grin spread across his lips.
“Knives,” he commanded. So he caught her off guard - once. It wouldn’t happen again. She set Sankta Marya on the desk next to all his things. “All of them.”
“That afraid of losing?” She questioned as she twirled Sankt Petyr around her fingers to stall.
“I’m at a disadvantage. I wasn’t tortured as a child by this game.”
“It’s supposed to be fun, Kaz,” she rolled her eyes and set the knife down reaching for Sankta Anastasia next.
“Fun is a subjective construct,” he countered. She let out an exasperated breath as she set Sankta Alina down.
“What did you do for fun as a child?”
He leaned against the front of his desk and crossed his arms over his chest. She fingered the intricate rose pattern on Sankta Lizabeta as she waited. He was quiet for so long she began to worry he couldn’t think of a single example. Or worse, wasn’t able to share it.
As soon as she set the final weapon down he put his hands back out and she held hers above. On the one hand, she didn’t feel she should have to pry the information out of him. But on the other hand, he was at least still playing. Starts and stops. Tiny progress was still progress and she’d be lying if she said she didn’t enjoy beating him at all these games.
His dark eyes focused on their hands again and he quietly answered, “mostly bothered Jordie, when we weren’t working.”
The shock made her throat constrict. But she forced herself to carefully prod, “bothered him how?”
It was so sudden she actually gasped, and then ripped her cloak off and tossed it onto the chair next to her. Kaz’s eyes roamed up and down her body before they reset their hands.
“Pestered him, followed him, asked him endless questions. I used to hide his shoes.”
She chuckled to herself imagining it, “where?”
“Anywhere he wouldn’t think to look.”
“Started young then?” She questioned and quickly shrugged out of her own vest eager to keep this momentum.
Kaz shrugged but was grinning as they reset their hands. After a beat of concentration he continued, “then Da died and we came here.”
“No more games,” she quietly guessed. She noticed him hold his breath and moved her hands a fraction of a second before his, causing him to swat the air. Instead of resetting his hands, he moved even closer to her.
“No,” he murmured and smoothed his hand carefully over her waist. “Then it was magic.”
With his free hand he produced her hair tie at the same moment she felt her braid unraveling. She hadn’t even noticed his other hand. His fingers pressed into the small of her back, gently pulling her toward him and she let out a shaky breath. It wasn’t that she was uncomfortable. She was worried she’d want to move too fast. She’d stab herself before she’d admit it out loud, but most days she fantasized about what was supposed to happen after they got this far.
His lips dusted against her forehead as his fingers started working through the plaits, carefully combing down to the ends. She was sure her heart would give out before she could beg him to keep going. She couldn’t trust her own voice. Instead, she delicately reached up and started working on any buttons her hands could fumble with. His breaths started to pick up as well, but it was the flush seeping from his cheeks down onto his neck and chest that made her keep going.
With a rough tug, she yanked his shirttail out from his pants and slid her hands up his stomach and onto his pecs. She paused, unsure if she was doing it for his benefit or her own. Her blood was practically singing with promise with every pump of her fluttering heart. But this could always go so terribly wrong so horribly fast for either of them, she didn’t know if she should risk it.
“Don’t stop,” he whispered into her hair, and she bit her lip in exaltation. Her greedy hands skimmed over his shoulders and pushed his shirt and vest off. He let her go just long enough to shake it off his body and then in one smooth movement had picked her up and spun her around to set her on the desk. She adjusted, he pushed everything out of the way, his belongings clattering to the floor and she felt her eyes widen with excitement.
“What?” His eyes searched her face first and then darted around her as if assessing for a threat.
“No, I…” she forced the laugh down and continued with, “I’ve always wanted to see you do that.”
He blinked, confused for a split second, and she felt her own cheeks burn with embarrassment. To break the very intense eye contact they were having, she started to gather all her hair at the back of her neck.
“No,” he shot in. It was her turn to look up, blinking in confusion. “I...like it down.”
“Four years together and this is the first time you’ve mentioned it. Was that so hard?”
“Not that hard,” he smirked.
With a wicked grin of her own, she looked directly into his eyes and ran her palm down the front of his slacks, “beg to differ.”
Kaz laughed. This beautiful, carefree, baritone laugh she watched burst past his lips as the flush grew a deeper red. She’d never heard that laugh before. The fake one he used with the Dregs - several times. The snort he’d give Nina and Jesper when they were in true, hilarious, form - often. But this was so surreal it felt like magic. He rested his forehead on her shoulder as he tried to compose himself. She brought up her hand to run her fingers through his hair and then slightly scratch her nails down his back.
He pressed a surprising kiss into her neck and said, “I also like…”
KNOCK. KNOCK. KNOCK.
They both froze like misbehaving children caught red-handed.
“Boss,” a low voice boomed through the wood, “got a delivery for the Captain.”
“Me?” Her eyes darted to Kaz, still bright red.
“Leave it,” he ordered. But his eyes darkened with concern. “The better question is how would they know you’re here?”
“It’s not exactly a secret,” she scoffed at him, hopped off the desk, and moved to the door. The letter had been slid underneath with an official-looking gold seal.
“It would seem our friends in Ravka have finally made good on our deal,” he commented as he came to stand next to her.
“There was more?” She broke the seal and slowly opened the parchment, “my parents and a lead.”
“Hardly enough for funding a bankrupt nation,” he drawled. She smacked him with the envelope, momentarily distracted when it hit his still bare chest. But she could only get past the first line.
We are in desperate need of your help.
She stood up straighter, pleasantly surprised to be able to lean against Kaz as he tried to get a better look over her shoulder. Dread hit her square in the chest, stealing her breath. This was the moment. In her hand everything she’d been striving for. At her back everything she’d been building. She had been personally summoned to assist the people of Ravka. And Kaz was still shirtless and flushed, his gorgeous laugh echoing in her ears.
“Did you ever find a replacement for your chief engineer after that raid in the Southern Colonies?” He took a step away from her.
“Yes,” she folded the letter, “how did you…”
“I pro…” he started to say and then pressed his lips together. “I care about your success.”
“Marginally better,” she warned.
“You’ll need to leave in the next hour or so if you want to catch the northern tide,” he turned away, carefully shuffling back toward his desk.
“When have you had time to study sailing?” She wondered and followed him across the floor.
“Puts me right to sleep,” he quipped, the muscles on his shoulders tensing. He grabbed his shirt from the floor and gave it a violent shake. But he didn’t put it right back on, just pressed into the top of his desk enough for her to see his back flex. She needed to see his face, his eyes, they never lied to her like all his armor could. With both of them practically naked now she supposed this was the perfect time to be honest with each other. She reached forward and tugged on the shirt to get his attention. He didn’t turn and the dread tried to squeeze her lungs empty.
All she could hear was the thready panic of her heart. Stay. Leave. Stay. Leave. She tugged the shirt again and he dropped his head in defeat and then turned. The flush gone, his shoulder’s square, his face guarded. But his eyes. His eyes were desperate.
“What should I do?” She whispered to him.
“I can’t answer that,” he firmly replied.
“Can’t?” She dropped the shirt. “Or won’t?”
“I thought I’d have more time,” he frowned, “I just hope all this is enough.”
“We both know this one is different,” he leveled her with a knowing look. “And I will never be what stands in your way.”
“Just tell me you’ll come back,” he clenched his jaw, “one day.”
“Yes,” flew from her mouth without thought. She took two steps forward to throw her arms around his neck and squeeze. His own snapped around her as if trying to meld her into his own body. She pressed her forehead into his chest and whispered over and over, “yes.”
The breeze from the harbor pushed through the open window, fluttering all the papers on his desk about the room, but he didn’t let go.
“Come back to me,” he breathed into the crown of her head.
“Always,” she answered, turning her face so she could rest her cheek, and hear his heart. His fingers tangled into her still loose hair and she closed her eyes. For a moment, it was absolutely perfect. And she knew, no matter where the Saints might take them, that she would destroy anyone and anything that tried to take this away from her again.
“Inej,” he breathed into her hair again, but in the distance, she could hear the bells from the temple announcing a change in the tide.
“Stay out of trouble,” she smiled.
KNOCK. KNOCK. KNOCK.
“Boss, you’ll wanna come out for this,” the same voice boomed through the door.
“I’m going to break his fingers,” Kaz growled and then reluctantly let go.
She grabbed the shirt from his distracted hand and shrugged it on, “tell Jesper and Wylan I’m sorry for missing their party.”
“I’m not going to that now,” he grumbled. “I have morale to crush.”
“Build,” she chuckled as she buttoned up his shirt. “You need to build morale.”
“You have your ship,” he said as he grabbed another shirt out of his closet. “I have my city.”
“Challenge accepted,” she smirked, sliding on her vest and all her knives. The moment his back was to her, she snuck right out his window.