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The Way Forward

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It was a typical day for Kaylin Neya – typical, at least, for the past year – which meant that she was late, Sergeant Marcus Kassan was on edge, and the Hawklord was waiting for her in his tower. If she'd believed in gods, it would have been enough to make her wonder which one she'd angered. As it was, however, she had no one to blame but her own bad luck, though the way she was glaring at the door wards at the top of the Aerie might have led anyone watching to believe she attributed at least some of the fault to them.

Grimacing, she braced herself and raised a hand to the door. If there was one good thing about the painful tingle that zapped her arm, immediately numbing it, it was that she could at least hope it would be the worst thing about her visit to the tower.

The expression on the Hawklord's face and the bright blue of his eyes, however, made her suspect that this time that wouldn't be the case.

“Private Neya,” he began and she nearly winced. Yes, this was definitely going to be unpleasant if he were going to be this formal.

“Lord Grammayre.”

“As you may recall, a request for leave was made on your behalf.” His tone suggested that he suspected she'd forgotten, which was fair enough – she had. “That request has been granted, to begin immediately.”

For a moment, shock overcame her dignity – not that she ever had much of it. Kaylin's eyes widened and her mouth opened, protests emerging before she even thought them through. “But what about -”

The Hawklord cut her off. “It is true that the timing is not ideal. But it has been brought to my attention that, while you are not Barrani yourself, you remain a Lord of their High Court. Were we to refuse you this leave, it could create a diplomatic incident.”

Kaylin wondered how a Barrani who had been exiled from that same court could possibly create such an incident, because she was certain that reminder could have come from only one source, but she thought it better not to ask. “Has anyone told Sanabalis and Lord Diarmat?”

The Hawklord nodded. “I have sent messages to both. As you no doubt suspect, Lord Diarmat objected, but he has agreed that your responsibilities as a Lord of the High Court outweigh others at this time.” Which might have been a surprise had Kaylin not been certain that Lord Diarmat knew precisely what the consequences of refusal would have been, something she herself was unsure of, but was glad she wouldn't have to find out just yet. “Sergeant Kassan has been notified as well. I have left it to you to inform Bellusdeo.”

That was another conversation Kaylin was not looking forward to, but just as she handled most things she didn't want to think about, she mentally put it aside until she had to deal with it. Bellusdeo wasn't a Hawk and she wasn't here; she could wait.

“Will I need another dress?” she asked, not even trying to keep the dismay from her voice or her expression. If so, the Quartermaster just might kill her and then she wouldn't have to worry about what to wear on a trip with an Outcaste Barrani.

“It seems,” the Hawklord replied drily, “that Lord Nightshade is taking care of your wardrobe.”

Under other circumstances, Kaylin might have been offended, but right now, she was more relieved than anything else. She had no idea what to wear, but she was certain he did. Not to mention that the few Barrani dresses she'd worn, while still not something she'd choose, were far more comfortable and practical than the confining garment the seamstress guild had made for her when she first went to the High Halls.

“And Teela?” She hadn't forgotten that the Barrani Hawk had promised to go along if Kaylin couldn't avoid this invitation and she clung to that hope. She did not want to be alone with Nightshade for who knew how long.

At that, the Hawklord relented, abandoning the formality despite their location and offering her an understanding smile. “Her request for leave has been granted as well. I believe she is waiting for you in Sergeant Kassan's office.”

Relieved, Kaylin returned his smile. “I hope the trip won't be too long. I'll miss this place.”

The Lord of said place nodded; he knew how much Kaylin considered the Halls of Law - and particularly the Hawk tower - her home. “One last thing, Kaylin. We are already giving up the services of two Hawks; given the recent upheavals in the city, we can't spare more. Severn will remain here, on duty.”

That's not fair, was her immediate thought, but Kaylin wasn't thirteen anymore. She nodded. It was true; they were shorthanded as it was. It was probably better this way; the trip was going to be uncomfortable enough even with Teela along. The addition of Severn, particularly over Nightshade's inevitable objections, would make that far worse.

* * *

As promised, Teela was waiting in the office by Marcus' desk. She wasn't quite sitting on it, but that was probably only because there wasn't room. Dragons battling in the skies tended to create a lot of paperwork and it didn't help that they hadn't really been done with all the work that had been generated by the arrival of the Norannir. “Don't look so down,” she commented when she caught sight of Kaylin's expression. “Most people are happy to go on leave.”

Most people, however, weren't Kaylin. Being a Hawk was her life, or at least the only life she wanted. This was where she belonged.

And this wasn't her only job, just the only one she actually got paid for. What happened if the midwives or the Foundling Hall needed her? If she thought it would do any good, she'd be filing every protest she could come up with, no matter what the excuse.

Teela sighed and shook her head. “Well, I can tell you're going to be a lot of fun on this excursion.”

Despite the lightness of her tone, there was enough blue in her eyes that Kaylin knew Teela wasn't as casual about this as she pretended.

“I don't understand any of this.”

“Oh, I think you understand some of it.” But her expression was serious now; she was listening.

Which might have led to some actual answers had Marcus not chosen that moment to interrupt. “Unless I'm mistaken, you are both currently on leave. So why are you still here?”

Kaylin jumped. She'd forgotten he was there, which was quite a trick given both his size, made larger by fur standing partially on end, and the claws currently adding another series of runnels to the surface of his already much-abused desk. “Sorry, sir,” she replied. The words were automatic by now, as was the turn of head to expose her throat. She knew this reaction wasn't really anger at her – Marcus was worried and it showed. She just wished it were a little less obvious, and maybe a bit quieter.

“Then get out of here!” As they both moved to obey, Teela somehow managing to make the movement look languorous and graceful despite keeping up with Kaylin's awkward scramble, he added a final statement before they were out the door, words nearly lost in the growl that underlay them. “And Kaylin? Don't let him get away with anything.”

* * *

Once she'd left the safety of the Halls of Law and arrived at home, however, Kaylin realized that neither Nightshade nor Marcus were the immediate issue. No, the first hurdle she'd have to get past during this trip had been waiting for her here – her new roommate, the one whose presence meant that she got even fewer visitors than she used to.

For most people, she suspected that telling their roommate they were going to be away from home for awhile was probably not a big deal. Most roommates might even be glad to have the place to themselves. But most people's roommates weren't Dragons and they definitely weren't anything like Bellusdeo, who was currently standing in the middle of their room, giving Kaylin an odd look. “I don't see the problem. If you don't want to go, then don't.”

“If I were you, it would be that simple.” Which wasn't strictly fair; she knew Bellusdeo was already worried about being trapped by her importance to her race. If she wanted to leave, it probably wouldn't actually be as simple as deciding to do so. “I can't refuse without creating a big fuss and upsetting a lot of people.”

“Then let them be upset.” Which seemed to be Bellusdeo's answer to quite a few things. It was an answer that had been Kaylin's for most things as well, but she'd been learning the hard way that sometimes, that just wasn't good enough. The problem was that while she knew that, she often couldn't explain why, usually because she didn't entirely understand it herself. She was beginning to wish that Teela had accompanied her home instead of going off “to pack,” an excuse she didn't credit for a second. How long could packing take?

“I can't. Nightshade's information was obviously worthwhile or the Hawklord wouldn't have agreed to his terms. If I don't abide by those terms, it looks like the Hawks don't honor the deals they make with their informants.” And if that got around, things would be much harder for everyone. No one liked relying on informants, but sometimes it was the only way an investigation progressed at all.

“Then I'll go with you.”

For just a moment, Kaylin considered the idea. If she said she was bringing Bellusdeo, Nightshade might forget the whole thing rather than bring the Dragon along. He'd tolerated Tiamaris, but only barely, and only under emergency circumstances. But then she remembered the tone in which the Hawklord had said, “diplomatic incident” and reconsidered.

“I wish you could. But you can't go. It's a Barrani occasion – and you're a Dragon.” Given the history between the two races, that was reason enough. Kaylin didn't even know that history, not really, and she knew that.

And so did Bellusdeo, despite her long absence from this world. She looked thoughtful, clearly considering how else to get Kaylin out of this, something Kaylin appreciated, even if it were doomed to failure. She'd only known the Dragon a few days, but she already considered her a friend and this was just another point in her favor.

“Tell me more about this Barrani.”

So Kaylin tried, though she left out a few things, like the fact that Nightshade possessed Meliannos. By the time she was done, Bellusdeo's expression had shifted to one of amusement and her eyes shone bright gold.

“Oh, I see. This is a mating custom.”

Kaylin's eyes widened and her mouth hung open in an entirely undignified manner. She wanted to deny it, but the truth was that she couldn't. She had no idea what Nightshade's motives were and it wouldn't be the first time he'd attempted to court her.

“Then have a good time! Make sure he treats you well! And if he tries anything you don't like, make sure he regrets it.” Which was great advice, if only Kaylin had any idea how to do such a thing that wouldn't be worse for her in the end.

* * *

The trip began relatively painlessly. Nightshade eyed Kaylin's traveling outfit – exactly the same as her usual one, minus the Hawk – with disdain, but he didn't actually say anything. He and Teela argued a bit about travel arrangements, but in the end, all three of them left Elantra in one carriage, an uncomfortable arrangement for all of them, but better, in Kaylin's opinion, than most alternatives. She wasn't left alone, trying to make conversation with Nightshade. And Teela wasn't driving.

At first, she was too interested in looking out the carriage windows to talk to anyone. Kaylin had never left Elantra; it was strange to see the area outside through her own eyes. Unfortunately, it only took a short while of this before it all began to look the same to her and she was reduced to trying (and failing) to sleep to avoid both the constant awareness of a pair of Barrani eyes looking in her direction, as well as the stilted, overly polite conversation between Teela and Nightshade, both of whom seemed too conscious of propriety to allow the uncomfortable silence to continue for the entire day. She was certain they both knew she was mostly faking, but they went along with the pretense and she was grateful for it.

It was a relief when they reached an inn. Despite Nightshade's offer of his arm, Kaylin climbed out of the carriage on her own and immediately began stretching. How could a day of simply riding in a carriage make her so sore? She ached worse than she had after some battles. And she was tired enough that she could barely look at the inn, although it was the first one she'd seen.

The smell of food, however, was enough to get through her exhausted fog. They'd skipped lunch, probably because Kaylin was pretending to sleep, and she was starving. “We'll have dinner brought to our room,” Nightshade said, in response to the question she hadn't asked – or maybe it was just in response to the audible growl of her stomach.

“All right.” Kaylin nodded, too tired to argue with this arrangement, although normally she'd prefer to eat with everyone else in the common room she could only glimpse from the entrance. But when she started for the stairs to the rooms above, she was brought to a halt by his next statement.

“You will, of course, be sharing a room with me.”

“No, I won't. I'll share with Teela.” The denial was automatic, the words out of her mouth before she had time to think about them. Which most people who knew Kaylin would point out wasn't much different from most times she spoke.

Teela had been farther up the stairs than Kaylin, but she came back down, standing on the step beside her. “You're welcome to stay in my room.” Her smile was sweet on the surface, but there were razor edges to it, likely to cut if he pushed.

Nightshade, however, matched her smile with one of his own. “Under other circumstances, that would be acceptable, but I am afraid I must insist.”

Teela leaned against the bannister, arms crossed over her chest. Kaylin wouldn't have thought one could lounge while standing, much less on a stair, but somehow she managed to give that impression. “And what circumstances might those be?”

“Some months past, Lord Evarrim pointed out that I have been somewhat remiss with the formalities as regards Kaylin. I intend to rectify that situation.”

What? All Kaylin could think of was the word “consummate” and what it usually implied. For once, she was entirely speechless.

Luckily, Teela wasn't. “You intend to acknowledge her?” There was doubt in her tone and her eyes were entirely blue.

“I do. As I'm sure you'll agree, it makes these arrangements preferable.”

“I won't do it.” Kaylin had found her voice and she used it. She crossed her own arms over her chest, though she was aware that next to Teela, she probably looked like a grubby child trying to copy an adult. But she was used enough to that sensation that she was able to ignore it.

Do you think I'd harm you?

Kaylin wanted to say yes, wanted to insist on it, but like this, she found she couldn't. “... No.” Which meant, of course, that she didn't. She had his name; she knew him in ways she couldn't explain. Nightshade was perfectly capable of killing any number of people in horrible ways, perfectly willing to torture. He was accustomed to taking what he wanted and never concerning himself with the cost to anyone else. And yet, she was certain he wouldn't harm her and that he'd respect her boundaries.

Then do not continue this display. It's insulting.

Had they been somewhere else, Kaylin wouldn't have cared about insulting him. However, while she knew Teela wouldn't mind, she didn't want to start a fight in the middle of a strange inn. Not when she was tired and hungry, with the smell of food reminding her that the sooner they settled this, the sooner she'd get to eat.

“... All right.”

“Are you sure, kitling?” Though she was certain it was rude by Barrani standards, implying the same insult Nightshade had said she offered him, Teela eyed her with open concern.

“I'm sure.” She tried to force a smile and knew she'd failed when Teela's expression didn't alter. “You can cut his hands off if he tries anything.”

Teela laughed, her eyes shading back toward green, and nodded. “Just call my name. I'll hear you.” Though the words were directed at Kaylin, the meaningful glance in Nightshade's direction suggested they were really meant for him.

She turned and resumed climbing the stairs, leaving Kaylin to follow. When Kaylin got to the top, she stopped and waited for Nightshade; she had no idea which room was theirs, not to mention that he was the one with the key, a situation she didn't care for, but one she preferred to door wards. When he had joined her, he led the way to the room next to the one Teela had disappeared into, making a show of opening the door once he'd unlocked it.

“I trust it meets with your expectations.”

Kaylin's first thought when she walked inside was that the inn must have rooms just for Barrani. The room was elegant, that was the only word for it. The walls were painted a pale green, with a pattern of twining leaves in a border around the ceiling. The furniture was sparse, but it was all perfectly chosen to give the impression that it belonged there, and all deceptively delicate, like the Barrani themselves. Her second was reserved for the food. Unlike the furnishings, it was hearty – a stew that smelled divine even from the doorway, a plate of roasted meat, and plenty of bread and cheese. Nothing like the sort of thing she was used to trying to eat in places that looked this formal.

Refusing to even glance at the door that she knew must lead to the bedroom, she made her way to the table as though it was a magnet and she iron, barely pausing to let Nightshade pull out the chair for her. If he hadn't been fast, she wouldn't have even managed that.

It wasn't until she'd satisfied at least some of her hunger (completely ignoring the table manners Tara had been working so hard to teach her in the process) that she managed to ask the question that had been in the back of her mind since the conversation on the stairs. “I am still not Erenne. Why would you say that I am?” Kaylin was still not even certain what the term meant, but whatever it was, she was sure it did not describe their relationship.

“True, you are not. But the acknowledgment will be of use to both of us, regardless of its truth.”

It was practically Barrani nature to lie, but Kaylin still didn't understand. “How?”

Nightshade smiled at her, that infuriating superior expression he wore when he thought she'd asked a stupid question. “I believe that is a conversation for another time.” With the grace with which he did everything, he rose from the table, pushing his chair back in before approaching her seat. “No doubt you are tired.”

Now faced with the moment she dreaded, Kaylin didn't feel tired at all, but she got up from the table as well, letting him lead the way into the bedroom, though she stood in the doorway and stared at the bed with trepidation, as though it might bite her.

She felt Nightshade approach, standing close enough that she could sense him behind her, though he was careful not to actually touch her. “It has not escaped my attention that you have shared a bed with any number of people. Is this so different?”

“... Yes.”

She couldn't even see his expression, but she could feel it through the connection between them. He was pleased by that, damn him. It wasn't meant to be flattery!

“I give you my word: I will not touch you if you don't wish it.”

Thus reassured, she was finally able to make her legs work, walking into the room and sitting on the bed to remove her boots, though she remained fully dressed when she slid beneath the covers.

Nightshade waited until she was beneath them before joining her. True to his word, as she'd known he would be, he did not touch her, merely lay by her side.

Kaylin turned onto her side, facing away from him, but she was still conscious of his presence, more aware of his body next to hers than she'd ever been of anyone else's. He wasn't touching her, not even his hair or his breath brushing her skin, but she knew he was there, felt him as though he were pressed against her, holding her tight.

She should have felt safe, safer than she did with Severn. Not only was she certain that Nightshade would keep his word, what she'd said about her attraction to him was true – he was impervious to harm or close enough to it that the difference didn't matter. Were they to be attacked while she was sleeping, he'd be able to keep her safe. And yet, she was afraid, though of what, she couldn't say.

She lay like that, awake in the dark for what seemed like hours. Kaylin thought she might not sleep at all, but in the end, exhaustion overwhelmed her. Despite Nightshade's presence, despite his continued wakefulness that she could sense despite not looking at him, she slept.

* * *

The next two nights continued in much the same way. True to his word, Nightshade never touched her despite their shared bed, not even when he slept as well. It was Kaylin who had done that, waking the third morning wrapped around him as though she found his presence a comfort. He had to have noticed, but for once, he said nothing, though she could sense his satisfaction.

That night, though, after they'd eaten, Nightshade did something unexpected. “Tonight, I thought we would try something different.”

Kaylin looked up from the remains of her dinner, suddenly wondering if eating had been such a great idea. “What do you mean?”

You are afraid of desire, Kaylin. But that does not mean that you do not feel it.

Carefully, she moved her hands away from her daggers. They were shaking too much to be of much use anyway. She did not want to have this conversation, not with anyone, and definitely not with Nightshade. And if they had to have it, she'd rather do it aloud, not like this, where she could sense far too much of the emotions behind the words and knew he could do the same. It was too intimate for something so revealing. But because he'd begun this way, she knew she couldn't deny what he'd said. It was true – she felt it. She'd slept poorly these past few nights not just because she was afraid, but because she could sense his nearness and knew she desired him.

Kaylin, look at me. You want to escape your past, to move past what was done to you. I am offering you a way to do that.

She didn't want to, but she looked. In his hands were a pair of silver cuffs, connected by a short chain. They were delicate, etched with elaborate patterns, and didn't look like they'd restrain anyone.

“Oh, they'll hold,” he assured her, answering her thoughts in that annoying way he had. “I won't be able to break them. If you fear that I might do something you don't want, this will ensure I can't.”

“Then what if I use them and just leave you there?”

He shrugged. “Then you do. I am choosing to trust you.”

And with that, damn him, he ensured that she wouldn't. They both knew that she wouldn't violate his trust, that she was barely capable of just leaving him there even if he hadn't added that extra weight to the scales.

This is meant to help you, Kaylin. You can refuse.

Making up her mind, she stood and took the cuffs from him. She didn't like it, but he was right. She had to try this with someone sooner or later and he was the best choice. Anyone else, she was afraid of what she might do to them. But Nightshade? She couldn't hurt him, not really. In this, he was, of all things, safe.

He led the way into the bedroom, laying on his back on the bed, arms raised above his head. Looking at him lying there like that, as though his very posture was an invitation, Kaylin's mouth went dry and she had to swallow hard. She wanted to refuse, to back away. Even to run.

Instead, she forced herself forward. The cuffs opened easily under her hands, but once she'd snapped them shut over his wrists, her hands tingled. Magic. Well, of course they must be, if they'd hold a Barrani.

She looked at him again, carefully not meeting his eyes, and licked her lips nervously. “I'm not sure what to do.”

Whatever you want. We are here for you; I will not judge.

Kaylin was certain that was a lie, but she was determined to try. Hesitantly, she stroked his hair, impressed once again by how soft and smooth Barrani hair was, pleasant to touch in a way her own hair never was.

No, that wasn't the way. If she kept thinking like that, she'd feel too self-conscious to continue. Kaylin set beside him on the bed and began to unbutton his shirt, spreading it open without quite touching skin. Hesitantly, she closed her eyes and slid her hands over his chest. It felt, well, like anyone else's, almost human under her hands, though she noticed the lack of the scars both she and Severn bore. Had he never taken a serious wound or did Barrani not scar like humans? Either seemed equally possible.

Like this, her hands seeing for her, it would have been easy to slip into a healing trance, though she could feel that his body was whole. He was healthy, uninjured. And beyond that, there was...

“Kaylin.”

His voice jolted her back to herself. Her eyes opened before she saw more than a glimpse of what lay inside him, somewhere she hadn't seen, but had begun to feel.

You hold my name; you could go there safely. But that was not my intent.

No, she was sure it wasn't, and it wasn't hers either. As much as it frustrated her that she didn't understand him, Kaylin didn't want to go there, didn't want to see that much of him.

Eyes open now, she resumed the movement of her hands, watching the way they moved over his skin as though they were something separate, completely detached from her. What she'd said was true – she didn't know what she was doing and wasn't even sure what she wanted to do. Did she want to try to pleasure him, as she once had Barren? She shuddered, her hands stilling. No, or at least not like that.

Then she wanted to pleasure herself? Kaylin didn't even know how. She'd never tried. After Barren, after that one disastrous date, she'd never thought she'd need to know and never really wanted to.

But he had been right. She did feel desire for him. Looking at Nightshade now, how could she not? He was beautiful, all Barrani were. She couldn't hurt him, even if she panicked. And he was restrained, unable to even try to take anything she didn't want to give.

Experimentally, she leaned over and pressed her lips to his. It wasn't like the kiss he'd given her; she didn't really know what she was doing, so it was all nervous energy and no skill. But he kissed her back and that helped. This time, with no hands on her, nothing to suggest she couldn't pull away, she didn't want to. Instead, she moved closer, until she was lying half on top of him.

When she pulled away, she was breathing hard. She didn't try to say anything; words had never been Kaylin's first instinct. And she was acting on instinct now; if she didn't allow herself to think, she couldn't panic.

Lying on her side beside Nightshade, she left her hands dip lower, down his stomach and over his hips, stroking down one thigh. She carefully avoided the cock she could see outlined clearly in his pants; she wasn't ready for that, wasn't sure she'd ever be ready, but definitely not yet. She wasn't even sure how she felt about this evidence that he desired her. She'd known it, but she didn't understand it, not when the contrast between them was so obvious. Chosen or not, she was still human, still mortal. Still awkward and imperfect beside even the youngest Barrani, much less one with Nightshade's age and power .

And yet, he had given this to her, given her permission to do exactly as she wanted. Kaylin didn't understand that either, but she felt something she had rarely felt for him before, despite all the help he had given her – gratitude. Focusing on that instead of the desire she was so afraid of feeling, she shifted her weight, leaning over to take one nipple in her mouth. She wasn't sure he would like it; any knowledge she had of sex that didn't come from Barren came from dirty jokes, but she wanted to try and his faint gasp when she bit down gently, the first reaction she'd provoked, gave evidence that her instincts were sound.

Kaylin was surprised by how pleased she felt at being able to make him react. She expected to feel afraid, but instead she felt a surprising sense of power, power that for once didn't require her to hurt anyone to exercise it. Maybe it was merely a side effect of her feeling that he was untouchable; it was vulnerability and that made him more human, more like her instead of someone so far above her that she'd never dare to touch, yet not so much so that she was afraid of hurting him.

Daringly, she slid lower, trailing little bites down his side, just as though she knew what she was doing. Her eyes slid closed again, but this time, it was different. She could sense Nightshade's responses like this, could tell what he liked and what he didn't. In a trance related to the one she fell into when she healed, but not the same, she was able to keep going, to press her mouth to his erection through his pants, kissing her way gently down that as well.

After that, however, she paused, suddenly uncertain. Kaylin glanced up and her eyes met Nightshade's. His were dark blue, nearly midnight, and his face was flushed in a way she'd never seen it.

You can stop if you want to. He still refused to speak aloud, but this time, it seemed better this way. If she heard his voice, it might jar her out of the half-trance she was in, might trigger the panic she could still feel lurking there, ready to pounce if she felt threatened or pressured in any way.

She still didn't answer him, not in words, but she shook her head. Before she could talk herself out of it, she stood and undressed. Kaylin could feel Nightshade watching her, but she tried not to feel self-conscious. It wasn't the first time he'd seen her naked, just the first time she'd been the one to remove her clothing.

From there, she unbuttoned his pants and shoved them down his hips. It was more awkward to do without his help than she expected, but she didn't dare try to cut them off as she might if they belonged to someone she intended to heal. Like all his clothing, they were too expensive to be treated like that.

She looked at him again, her eyes examining him from head to toe, unable to keep from blushing. Kaylin wasn't a prude; she couldn't have spent as much time with Teela and Tain if she had been. But it had been a long time since she'd seen a man naked from the waist down like this - and never in these circumstances.

Nightshade remained silent, waiting for her to decide what she would do. Even now, if she backed out, she knew he'd accept that – at least for tonight. And it was that very knowledge that pushed her onwards. That kind of patience wasn't something Kaylin thought she'd get from anyone else, not even Severn, despite his best intentions. And it was what she needed.

Slowly, with deliberate movements, she climbed on top of him. Like this, with his hands bound, she had to do everything herself, lifting his cock with one trembling hand and holding it up so she could slide down it.

And then she sat there, eyes closed, trying to get used to the sensation. It was different from before, when she'd been little more than a child. Different from when she hadn't wanted it at all and this had been taken from her rather than given as a gift. She sat there and Nightshade let her, just waiting, though she could feel his gaze on her.

Finally, Kaylin began to move, biting her lip as she lifted herself up and lowered herself down, leaning forward to support herself with her arms. She could feel that he wanted her to undo the cuffs now, that he wanted to touch her, but he didn't press it when she didn't. If she took them off, Nightshade would take over. It was who he was; without the restraint, he would take control without even trying and she didn't want that. Instead, she set the pace, adjusting the angle and speed for herself, seeking out what felt best through trial and error.

It wasn't the sort of sex she'd heard about in the sort of romantic tales she'd always known better to believe in. There were no fireworks; she didn't feel overwhelmed by the sensation. She wasn't even sure she'd orgasmed, though Kaylin wasn't sure what that would feel like anyway. But that kind of sex wasn't what she wanted anyway; she'd have been afraid of it. Even better, this wasn't the other sort of sex, the only kind she was personally familiar with, the kind that was just business, that involved no true desire and no sharing, the kind that was only about taking from someone with nothing else to give.

After, when she removed the cuffs, she let Nightshade hold her, even let him stroke her hair without devoting too much thought to how rough and uneven it must feel under his hands.

Do you feel better?

I don't know. Better in some ways, but things weren't that simple. In Kaylin's experience, they rarely were. One sexual encounter where she wasn't afraid wasn't enough to erase all the ones in which she had been. But she felt more relaxed than before, comfortable enough with Nightshade that she thought she'd actually be able to sleep like this, rather than lying stiffly as far away as she could until sheer fatigue forced her to sleep.

The comfort was an illusion, at least in part. She knew that. He was a Barrani Lord even if he were Outcaste; deception was their nature, or close enough to it that it didn't matter. Further, he didn't do anything without a reason. He was helping her, but he was getting something out of it, too, and it was more than sex. She was certain of it, even if she didn't know the specifics; but for now, it was enough, and not even the smug satisfaction she could feel from him could ruin it.

Perhaps next time, you'll let me touch you.

“And maybe I won't,” she answered, but she was less certain of it than before. Kaylin didn't even quarrel with his assumption that there would be a next time. And one night, even if it wasn't the next time, he'd be right – she'd let him touch her. What would happen then, she didn't know, but oddly, she found that part of her was already looking forward to it.