Thrones, Calay’s knuckles ached. And so did his face. When the servants arrived and filled his bath, his first order of business once they’d gone was to snuff every last light and climb into the tub in utter blackness.
He sank into silent, meditative dark, water lapping at his shoulders. The bandages unwound themselves from around his arm; he left them floating there, not giving a shit. Time passed. Who knew how much. His heart gradually slowed. He slouched back into the bath until the waterline neared his nose. As a child, he’d sustained a break to the jaw once. That old pain throbbed to the surface now, causing him to grit his teeth.
Footsteps approached his room. The latch creaked, then the door swung inward ever so slightly, a crack of orange light beyond. He might have reached for his pistol, but he knew those footsteps anywhere.
“Thought I might find you here.” A pause. “Didn’t expect the bathtub in complete darkness, though.”
Gaz stepped in without asking permission, his big silhouette blocking out most of the light he let in.
Calay wasn’t sure quite what to say to that. He knew it must look odd. But he didn’t much care what it looked like.
“I stopped by the pub.” Gaz’s expression was only just visible, a furrow to his thoughtful brow. “Heard you caused a scene.”
“And what?” Calay rolled the knuckles of his good hand. “You expect me to be penitent?”
“Nah.” The sound of something scraping. A match flickered, then a lantern glowed to life. Gaz lit the small bedside lamp but left all the others untouched, allowing Calay to retain some measure of his darkness.
He walked over to where the bathtub sat in the middle of the floor, then sagged down beside it, resting his back against the copper. Calay took a moment to look him over. He’d bathed and changed clothes, wearing a loosely-draped shirt with loose sleeves that must have been on loan from the Baron’s estate. He’d shaved both his face and the sides of his head.
“Well aren’t you looking fresh,” Calay said, not disapproving.
“Had to occupy myself somehow while you were off picking fights.”
Irritation scorched through him like a rash. He shifted in the warm water, slouching against the opposite side of the tub with a scowl.
“Yes,” he deadpanned, “how unreasonable of me to feel angry after losing my arm. Poor form, I know.”
Gaz clunked two knuckles to the tub. Calay couldn’t see his face from his newfound slouch, and maybe that was for the best. He could somehow hear the eyeroll, though.
Grabbing up one of his little cakes of soap, Calay started to scrub it through his hair, lathering up one-handed.
“Why are you even here?”
“Wanted to make sure you hadn’t had your face bashed in.”
He had to fight the urge to keep his right arm submerged, twenty-eight years of muscle memory informing him that washing one’s hair took two hands.
“You and I both know there isn’t a single peasant in this rat-spit town who could get one over on me.”
“I’m aware.” There was an undercurrent of something to Gaz’s voice, something he couldn’t quite pinpoint.
“So what then?” Some dim corner of his mind was aware that needling like this was cruel, unnecessary. But spite was a tempting vice.
“I’m not worried some yam-digger is going to whoop your ass. I’m worried about how you stormed outta here, got blasted drunk, picked a fight with one arm, and are now taking a bath in the dark. After how careful we’ve been to keep our heads down…”
Below the water’s surface, his bladed hand clenched. He felt a shift, a crack beneath the surface of the bark. Felt claws tickling at their sheaths for any excuse, any reason whatsoever. Thrones, he was tired. He didn’t have it in him for anger. Not anymore.
Stiffly, he cupped water over his hair, washing away the soap.
“Well I won’t do it again, if that’s what you’re so concerned about,” he spat. “Your cover is safe.”
“You make it hard to look out for you sometimes.”
“I don’t recall asking you to.”
Every time he spoke, Gaz was getting quieter. “You’re doing a hell of a job of minding yourself if that shiner is any indication.”
Finally, a little spark of that fury seized him so hard he couldn’t stand it. He smashed his taloned hand against the copper and it rang like a gong, the strength behind the blow unearthly. Gaz flinched and sat up, glancing over his shoulder like he trusted the structural integrity of the bathtub no longer.
“What would you have me do?” Calay hissed. “What the fuck expectation of yours am I failing to meet? I lost an arm, Gaz. I got sucked into that tree and I felt every person who’d ever died in it. I felt it when Torcha blew the grove to shit. I felt–I felt–”
A wrench and twist and pop of ligaments and joints, roiling nausea, terror so profound it whited out the rest of the world–
I felt you do it, Gaz. I felt you rip my arm off. I felt it through you. How bad it fucked you up. I’ve been outside myself and inside myself and I don’t know whose horror is whose anymore.
Swallowing, he picked up the pieces of that sentence before it could careen down a deep, maudlin hole.
“I can’t even shave,” he laughed instead. “Can’t hold the razor right all cuddywift. Tore the button-holes on my trousers after taking a piss.”
Gaz tactfully sidestepped everything that came before that.
“So let me,” he said. “How hard can it be to shave someone else’s face? Ain’t cut off my own nose yet.” A pause. “You’re on your own with the pissing, though.”
Gaz dragged the lantern along the floor, then rose up. He returned a moment later with Calay’s satchel, dropping it onto the floor and digging through it. Calay watched him, brows knit.
“Hey,” he said. “I got private stuff in there.”
Eventually locating it, Gaz withdrew a leather-wrapped toiletries kit and unfurled it. He sorted through it and extracted the razor, touching at the blade and letting out an appreciative grunt.
Calay sat up slowly in the tub, draping his good arm over the rounded lip of it. He rested his chin atop his knuckles.
“You’re actually going to do this,” he said.
“I have this theory that if you look less like shit you’ll behave like less of a shit.”
He wasn’t about to sass a man with a straight-razor in his hand, so he merely flicked a few disdainful drops of water in Gaz’s direction.
“Either lather up your face or pass me the soap, would you?”
Calay wrinkled his face in annoyance. “I’m not an infant,” he said. “I can lather my own damn face.”
He reached down and snatched the brush from the shaving kit, then sought his forgotten bar of soap. Cupping it in the palm of his ruined hand, he was able to work up a frothy lather just the same as if he’d had a human palm. He lathered up his cheeks, then his jaw, sniffing. The soap had an evergreen tickle to it.
“How should I sit?” he asked. I guess I’m fully committed to this idiocy.
“Beats me.” Gaz searched a look around the room. “I told you I’ve never done it before.”
Gaz shoved up again, then returned a moment later with a short footstool. He plopped himself down upon it and stretched out the leather strop over his knee. He certainly looked like he knew what he was doing.
“Chin up,” he said, and Calay scooted forward as best he could, angling his face upward. Looking at the ceiling in the murky lampglow had an oddly soothing effect. He let his eyes relax into the woodgrain.
Fingers grabbed him by the chin. Calay flinched back, his momentary relaxation evaporated in an instant.
“Whoa there.” Gaz gave him a look.
Sniffing again, Calay cleared his throat. “You could have warned me.” He felt childishly defensive. Hadn’t been aware his reflexes were so twitchy. “Sorry,” he said. “I’m not used to being grabbed by the face.”
“Yeah, well,” Gaz leaned forward, gesturing for him to sit back up again. “Comes with the territory. Sorry.”
Squinting his eyes closed, Calay gestured. On with it.
This time, when Gaz took him by the chin, he stayed still. He felt rough-textured fingers prodding at his cheek a moment, then retracting. Gaz thumbed near his right eye-socket, then rested the blade against his skin. That sensation sent all kinds of horrible itches through Calay’s fingertips. Never in his entire life had he let someone hold a blade to his face. It felt like trying to breathe underwater, wholly wrong on every possibly level. He’d have had better luck telling his body to swim open-mouthed through Vasile’s Grand Canal.
“I know this’ll be tough for you,” Gaz said as he started to rasp the razor down, “but try not to talk.”
Calay didn’t dignify that with a response. He sat immobile as instructed, trying to will away the alarms ringing at the base of his skull. It’s Gaz, he told his nerves. But regardless of who the hand belonged to, it was still a hand holding him by the head while someone scraped a razor down his face. He tried to divert his thoughts off toward something calming, something pleasant. He ran through the preparations of an herbal poultice in his mind, reciting ingredients.
Gilea sap. Dartweed leaves. Blackgrass boiled in water and reduced to paste. A spread of honey over the wound before application. He pictured the preparations in his mind’s eye: the mortar, the pestle, the honey dipper.
Soon, he’d relaxed however much he could. Gaz dragged the blade down his cheek, shaving with the grain, hands commendably gentle. He steered Calay’s chin side to side with his fingers; Calay let him.
Gradually, at some point he couldn’t determine, the sensations themselves became the source of his relaxation rather than his medicinal meditations. His shoulders loosened. He puffed out a long-held sigh. Gaz’s fingertips were point of cool contrast against his bath-flushed face.
“See, there we are.” Gaz sounded like he approved of this turn of events. “Isn’t going to kill you.”
Squinting his eyes open, Calay peered obliquely toward the razor that hovered near his lip and hmphed.
“Chin up,” Gaz instructed. “Let me get your neck.”
That reluctance crept back in. “I’m sure it’s fine,” he said. But Gaz had a way about him. He could persuade with a look where Calay took hours to argue the same point. He did as instructed and further lifted his chin.
Like a sawbones seeking a pulse, Gaz put a hand to the side of his neck. That sent a twitch through the fingers of his good hand. Gaz dug his thumb in a little, drawing the skin of his throat taut, and his fingers curled around against his nape and wait, wow, wait–
“Shit, sorry, you okay?”
Calay swallowed dryly. “Uhm?”
“You flinched. I thought I nicked you.”
Blinking hard, Calay opened his mouth and gulped in air like a fish on land. He hadn’t noticed, but Gaz was right–he’d tensed up. He was clutching the lip of the bathtub so hard the pads of his fingers hurt.
“Nah,” he said.
“Well settle down, then. Almost done.” Gaz slid the razor over the strop, then reached for him again.
This time, when Calay felt a hand at the back of his neck, he tried to take a mental step back. Tried to obtain some distance from himself. But he found he couldn’t. Every little scrape of razor and brush of fingertips shushed his thinking brain into submission.
This feels nice, he thought. Nice like laying on a road: all warm and strangely appealing, but a terrible idea and not a habit to grow accustomed to. But Gaz had nice hands. Big hands. Warm hands. He found himself struggling to string together words any longer than four letters. Everything was big and nice and warm and now.
Then the hands were gone, and Calay was extremely disappointed. Gaz dipped a cloth into the lukewarm water, then dabbed the rest of the lather off his cheeks. Calay watched him with wide, owlish eyes, tracking his hands with interest.
“How’s it feel? Miss anything?” he asked, shamelessly angling for a little bit more of that… whatever it was.
Gaz hiked up an eyebrow but then relented, dragging the back of a knuckle along Calay’s cheek to check for rough spots. But it wasn’t quite the same. It wasn’t quite good enough. Calay turned his head sideways and nuzzled his whole face into Gaz’s palm the way a hound might greet its keeper.
“You’re in a mood,” Gaz said, his voice unreadable. But he didn’t draw his hand away.
Calay reached up, grabbed him by the wrist. He moved like a man in a knife fight, on blind instinct and proprioception. With a demanding jerk of his arm, he pulled Gaz forward over the bathtub, splashing water all up the front of his clean new shirt. Calay’s brain had approximately half the time necessary to formulate a thought of I want this, yes, okay before the rest of him was acting more or less without his brain’s permission. He surged up and crushed his mouth to Gaz’s, steadying himself on his claws to prop them both up.
Gaz faltered but didn’t quite fall in. He stuttered out a halting grunt of surprise against Calay’s lips. But then he slid a hand around the back of Calay’s head, fingers threading through his damp hair.
Calay heard the razor clatter to the floor. It sounded a thousand miles away.
Strictly physically, kissing Gaz felt just about how one would expect kissing Gaz to feel. His mouth was broad, his lips were chapped. But there was a certain cozy familiarity to it somehow, despite the fact that they’d never kissed before. It felt like walking down a long road to a familiar destination. Gods, he hadn’t kissed anyone in a while. He’d forgotten all the little ways in which it was pleasant.
Gaz kept his fingers wound through Calay’s hair, then snaked his other arm around behind, half-holding Calay upright. Calay relinquished his wrist and relaxed into his grip. Might as well let the one with two fully functional arms do all the heavy lifting.
When their mouths finally parted, Gaz exhaled hard. His basso grumble came out a little breathless.
“Are you…” he started to say. But Calay shushed him, putting a finger to his mouth.
“Unless you’re speaking up because you absolutely don’t wanna do this, can we…. not?”
He dragged his thumb along the seam of Gaz’s lips. “Talk.”
This time it was Gaz who swallowed dryly. Calay heard his throat click.
“There is one thing we’ve got to work out.” Gaz grazed a knuckle over the ridges of his lumbar spine. He shivered. “Am I climbing in there with you or are you climbing out?”
Calay looped his arm around Gaz’s neck by way of an answer, standing only half under his own power. Their feet tangled as Gaz half-walked half-carried him across the chamber, leaving a trail of sodden footprints on the cool stone floor toward the bed. Deprived now of the warmth of the water, Calay was quick to burrow into the bedcovers. He pulled Gaz down atop him, unwilling and unable to stop now, trailing kisses up the underside of his jaw. He bunched handfuls of Gaz’s shirt, enjoying the way his shoulders moved beneath it, then–
A hiss of pain in his ear.
In his excitement, Calay had grabbed Gaz’s back with both hands. He’d raked Gaz’s shoulder with the bone-shard tips of his bad hand’s fingers, each sharp as a filleting knife. Chastened, he released his grip and let the claws fall to the mattress.
“Shit, shit shit shit, I didn’t mean to–”
Gaz wrapped one big hand around his right hand’s wrist, leaning down against him with a calming, claiming pressure that Calay found particularly enjoyable.
“Shh. You said no talking, remember?”
Calay shut up.