Kaz looked away first.
It was all Inej’s fault.
But how could he blame her, the setting sun gentle around her as she stepped through the window, her braid flipped over her shoulder as she lowered her hood, her eyes glowing with laughter as she took in the scene?
Kaz couldn’t bring himself to scowl as the young crow flew up from his desk to perch on her shoulder and nosed—beaked—at the dark embroidery on the edge of her hood.
“Staring contests again?”
Kaz flipped his cane so the crow head faced away from him and rested on the desk. “And if I was?”
She drew a finger over the crow’s head, and it turned to accept the touch. “I’d laugh at you.”
She laughed; Kaz leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes, letting the sound wash over him as she soundlessly approached and perched on the desk, hand beside his cane, crow still atop her shoulder.
Inej rested one of her feet on a handle of Kaz’s many drawers and the other beside his left knee. He looked at her slippers instead of the crow that had jumped onto one of her hands, at the curve of her neck instead of its fluttering wings; at her kind eyes instead of the way it pecked at the top of the desk.
Kaz looked up at her reverently as she took one of his hands in hers, slowly, touch by touch, linking their fingers together and letting their palms touch, solid and steady and warm against his fears. Her other hand pet the crow’s back.
Kaz let out an involuntary noise of protest.
She gave him a crooked smile. “Just because you lost a staring contest to him doesn’t mean I can’t say hello.”
“I think you put up an admirable effort against Crow Kaz.” Kaz relaxed. Inej smiled down at the crow and addressed it as it looked up at her, too. “But Human Kaz should try harder next time, shouldn’t he?”
Kaz shook his head and squeezed her hand. She was laughing—it didn’t matter what she was saying as long as she stayed content and her face shone with mirth. “It was my name first.”
“Crow Kaz stole your name?” She gave the crow a pleased smile once more. “He’s really living up to it, then.”
She’d been the one to bestow the name on Crow Kaz when he’d been a chick, picking out the meanest of the bunch and spoiling him with seeds and fruits until he mellowed around the two of them, flying fearlessly around Kaz’s attic room and making the desk and bookshelf a second home.
“He missed you.”
“No.” Kaz sat up straighter, looking into her eyes, stopping just far enough where he could still see her face. “Not just him.”
Inej leaned in an dropped a light kiss on the corner of his mouth, nothing more than a brush of skin; the shiver that ran up Kaz’s spine had nothing to do with cold and fear, and he breathed out slowly as she moved away, as if that would keep her close.
“You know,” she said, and her words came as if from behind a curtain, from parted lips that Kaz desperately wanted to meet once more, “you’re not going to be winning any starting contests against crows that can’t blink.”
Inej laughed. Somewhere between the sound, her finger touched his cheekbone. “Like that.”
Kaz scowled, moving his face and feeling her hand move with it. Staring contests against real crows were worth making fun of; staring contests against fake crows that topped canes were doubly so.
He had no defense.
Instead, he raised his hand and met Inej’s, holding it against his cheek, holding it still when it lowered: hands entwined on the desk and in the space between them, turning over when Crow Kaz jumped on them, knowing they usually held treats.
“You’re spoiling him.”
Kaz shook his head. “He earns his keep.”
“Yeah?” Inej’s eyes followed his hand to the covered bowl of seeds on top of the desk. “He can’t have replaced me, so does he steal or kill?”
Crow Kaz had been useful in fetching small prizes from their many victims, but his real skill lay elsewhere. Kaz kept his hand open as the crow pecked at the seeds in his hand. “You’d be surprised at the reputation you build when an omen of death follows you around the city.”
“Frightening, I’m sure.” Her smile was sharp: she’d heard the rumors, likely laughed at them, knowing their true cause. “Just that, though? You’re letting him off easy.”
Seeds devoured, Kaz ran a hand over his crow counterpart’s head. “I’m getting soft.”
Pampered, Crow Kaz leaned into her touch, too; Kaz felt her warmth, the tips of her fingers almost touching his.
Kaz wouldn’t scowl if she argued for his improving temperament and kinder rule, not when she looked not only smug but proud. Maybe he was getting soft—if soft was closer to her version of good, something he never imagined approaching but that now seemed… if not feasible, then an ideal he could strive to walk at the base of.
“Still scary, though.” And there was no rebuke in her voice. She’d heard the rumors; she was responsible for many of them. “Especially with your pampered death omen.”
A funny turn of phrase: Crow Kaz brimmed with life, cawing at his nest, pecking at Kaz’s belongings, flying around the room, shitting on the shoulders of rival gang members when he was feeling particularly loyal—he got fed extra on those days, but only if he kept out of sight. It wouldn’t do to see the Dregs’ official crow doing such undignified things.
“Terrifying.” She flattered him.
Not nearly as terrifying as her. Dirtyhands was an old myth, now, a monster between buildings, built into the cracks between the city’s cobblestones and roof shingles, a nightmare but a familiar one. Inej was a ghost—a Wraith grown beyond her city, flowing on the sea and striking fear into the hearts of men who thought their sins were untouchable.
And now she laughed, sitting with Kaz, who was so much more powerful than any of her victims, who walked surrounded by a cloud of fear and an excitable young crow.
“I missed you,” Kaz said when she looked away, hand soundlessly rummaging in a drawer for more seeds.
He didn’t say it often enough.
Inej looked up and smiled down at him—beamed, if not for the softness of her eyes and the gentleness of her hand when she poured some seeds into his. “I missed you too.”