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a love like this

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They come together in fits and starts.

Nothing is easy between them--never has been, never will be--and holding hands, well, it’s not enough to wipe away years of hands on skin and death decaying beneath you. It isn’t enough right now, but they are young and willing to try and more than that, they love each other. They aren’t sure where to go from here; they aren’t sure if there is anywhere to go from here.

But they try, and really that’s the whole point.


 

Here is a truth: Inej loves her ship.

The constant rocking beneath her feet; the sound of her crew laughing and joking, the sight of the sun rising over the ocean, the waves looking like they go on forever. The way her blood hums as she commandeers slaver ships, as she saves people.

In another world, one where Matthias and Nina live happily in Ravka, one where Kuwei dies in an auction house, where Pekka Rollins stands over them all, victorious, this might be enough.

But she has felt the skin of Kaz Brekker’s hand, tasted his breath as he leaned toward her, fingers fumbling over bandages, and there is something enticing in that memory, in that knowledge. She can go as far from Ketterdam as possible, but she will always know that Kaz takes a deep breath before his flesh touches hers, and somehow that is enough to bring her back.

The Slat is bigger now, with hot running water and more people than Inej can remember. Still, she slips in easily and quietly, bypassing the first floor after noticing the office light off. As she makes her way through the Slat once more, it feels like coming home, like slipping into an old, soft shirt. There is something comforting in the way her feet make no sound, in the slight burn and stretch of muscles, in the exhilaration of possibly getting caught.

Kaz isn’t home. It’s very late--or maybe early--so Inej isn’t sure if she wants to wait him out in his room or try and find him in the city. Before she can decide, though, she hears the distant thump of metal on wood and she slips behind the desk he still keeps there, tossing her feet up on top of it with a giddy smile.

Inej isn’t shocked when he comes into the room warily, eyes scanning everything before alighting on her. She can’t keep her own smirk at bay when he gives her feet a look and takes off his hat, tossing it carelessly onto the desk.

“Welcome home, Inej.”

Something molten stirs in her belly at her name in his mouth, the way his dark eyes can’t seem to pick a spot and stay there. She looks different; months at sea will do that to anyone, but she doesn’t know if he likes what he sees, or why it matters.

“What business?” He asks when she doesn’t say anything back, tugging out the chair opposite her and dropping into it. Inej finds herself grateful for her dark skin, so he can’t see the blush that burns in her cheeks at the sight of him. Kaz extends his leg and breathes out a long, exhausted sigh. Inej almost feels guilty for coming here at this time, but she also knows he wouldn’t be sleeping any time soon.

“Just came by to see an old friend,” Inej murmurs, smiling for real now. She drops her feet to the ground and leans forward, hair falling into her face as she says, “You look tired.”

Kaz shrugs, but there is a hint of a smile on his lips. Shifting, Kaz pulls off his gloves and drops them onto the table, rubbing his hands together roughly before resting his arms on the desk. His hand is out a little, palm up in a way that would look casual to anyone else.

She is not anyone else. Inej keeps her eyes on his face as she reaches out her own hand, the tips of her fingers brushing his.

He still shudders, eyelids flickering at the touch, but Inej can also see the way he braces himself, fingers curling around hers. It is the only place they are touching, but Inej feels light as air at the feeling.

“Is this alright?” Inej asks after a few moments of quiet, of watching each other and breathing. Kaz’s eyes are dark, but there is a softness to his features that Inej thinks might be progress.

“Yes,” Kaz tells her, fingers tightening just slightly around hers.

Odd, Inej thinks as she begins to tell Kaz about her last raid of a slaver ship. How holding hands can feel so much like coming home.


 

There is something more intimate about lying beside someone in bed than touching your lips to theirs. Kaz isn’t entirely sure why; he has seen Inej sleep before and it was never strange, but somehow lying a few feet away sets his heart pounding so fiercely that he thinks she must hear it.

Their breathing is loud in the dimness of the room, and they only have a few hours to sleep before they need to be up. In a moment of bravery, or maybe stupidity, Kaz had nodded when Inej asked an hour ago, “Would you like to share the bed with me?”

It had been a better option than the couch, which was more for decoration than comfort, and the weather had made his leg ache terribly today. Kaz thought, in a moment of indecision, that he had bested a merch, the Council of Tides, and a Barrel boss, so why not this? It wouldn’t be like they would sleep curled around each other, and the bed was big enough that they didn’t need to touch.

But he hadn’t considered this--the want. The desperate want inside him that said touch her, grab her hand, see if you fit along her spine. He can smell the rain in her hair and feel the heat of her body, and even though she is under the blankets and he is on top of them, he still feels like there are too many layers and not enough.

“Sleep, Kaz,” Inej intones, voice breathy in the still room, eyes shut and face passive. He wonders if her heart beats as soundly as his, if her skin is covered in gooseflesh or sweat.

“I’m trying,” he mutters, glad for her shut eyes, because as much as he does not want to be caught staring at her the way Wylan stares at Jesper, he can’t pull his gaze from her face. “But I can’t fall asleep with you thinking so loudly.”

Inej cracks one eye open at this and somehow she is able to convey so much in that glance that he can’t help but smirk. “What?”

Sometimes he surprises himself with how much he smiles around her. Dirtyhands doesn’t smile--Kaz Brekker, Barrel Boss of the Dregs doesn’t smile unless he’s just won something.

Maybe he has.

Inej sighs, twisting on her side to face him. Her breath hits the side of his face, but he barely winces at the feel of it anymore. She looks worried, a little skittish, and Kaz wonders if he should slip off the bed and make his way to the couch instead. He has never had an issue with beds before, but then, he has never been held down on one.

“Inej,” Kaz begins, unsure and worried to say something and break this--whatever this is.

“I’m fine,” she murmurs, tucking her hands beneath her pillow. Kaz follows the movement, then looks at her again. “It’s just...different, being in a bed with someone who doesn’t...” she trails off, pulling her teeth between her lip in a way that looks painful. Then, she says, “I’m happy you’re here.”

He blinks, then blinks again when he feels her foot shifting beneath the blankets, pressing it against his shin. He presses back tentatively, surprised to feel nothing but warmth spreading through him. There is no water tonight, no expectations. There is only them, and this bed, and the job they need to finish in the morning.

“Think you can sleep?” Kaz asks in lieu of replying to her question. He knows that his cheeks are flushed, but his heart has seemed to calm down a bit.

“I can try,” Inej answers, and that is all they have.


 

Kaz is so angry he could spit.

He and Inej are shoved into a narrow doorway, the darkness of the alley hopefully concealing them from sight as several angry people race down the street after them. Inej is only slightly out of breath beside him, but Kaz’s chest heaves against hers, his the sound of his panting near deafening in the alley. The feeling of his chest and belly brushing against hers is background noise beyond the roaring anger in his head.

They don’t look away from each other despite the danger only a few feet away at the mouth of the alley. Their assailants don’t seem to be circling back, but that means little in the Barrel.

Her eyes are dark and unapologetic as she stares back up at him. Her lip is split and her shirt is torn, but she doesn’t seem to be much more than bruised. Still, it angers him that she would jump in front of a blow meant for him, pisses him off that she would think he couldn’t handle himself.

Several long, horrible minutes of waiting in that alley while Kaz catches his breath, his leg aching from hauling ass from the warehouse district. There has been no sound but that of local traffic along the streets, and Kaz finally eases away from her.

Inej doesn’t move, just stays against the door, though she looks less tense now. “You’re angry.”

“No,” Kaz snarls, picturing the bruising that is probably already blossoming along her ribs, “I’m pissed off. Why the hell did you jump in front of me?”

Inej looks affronted, mouth opening to snap something back, but there is movement at the edge of his vision and Kaz is moving before he can think, one gloved hand sliding forward to slip beneath Inej’s braid, unraveling it as well as he can, while his other hand comes to rest on her hip. He shudders so hard his teeth rattle, and her breath gets caught in a choking sound, but he tries to make it look like they’re doing more than just hiding in this alley.

Her hand comes up against his jacket-clad bicep in a bruising grip. Kaz can’t see her eyes, but he can tell from taught way she is holding herself that she is uncomfortable.

"I’m sorry," he whispers, and then groans, low and long.

The footsteps at the edge of the alley pause, and then a drunken voice says, “Looks like this one’s taken too, love.”

A high-pitched giggle, and then they are gone, sauntering off into the street.

Neither of them move, both so tense that Kaz fears they might shatter if one of them moves too quickly. As his eyes flicker toward her, he realizes belatedly that he doesn’t feel nauseous.

She looks up at him, eyes depthless and he hadn’t realized before how close their mouths were. He smells mint on her breath and wonders if her mouth tastes like it, too. Tell me to stop, he thinks, but he can’t voice the words.

Kaz feels like he is standing on a high wire; one wrong move and he can crash to the ground, ruin everything. He feels like if he blinks, the moment will pass and neither of them will know what the other tastes like. But does it have to happen now? Their skin is not touching, and Kaz feels fine, but what happens if he presses his mouth to hers?

“Inej--”

“You didn’t see the blow coming,” Inej murmurs, pulling him from his thoughts. Kaz blinks, but the moment is still there, and she is closer than before. They are a hairsbreadth apart. “I noticed that you’ve been favoring your left side, so I figured a blow there might incapacitate you.” She shrugs, like it is no big thing. “I can’t carry you all the way back to the Slat.”

He blinks again, annoyed that he let his tell show, but not surprised that she noticed. The bat he’d taken to the ribs the other day had been terrible, and no, she couldn’t have carried him back to the Slat, but didn’t she know that watching her get hurt sent his blood boiling?

Probably.

Kaz inhales sharply, and in a moment of bravery and worry, he leans forward to peck her on the cheek.

Inej blinks up at him. He's pretty sure he looks like a little kid who just stole a kiss from the neighbour girl, rather than a feared Barrel boss, but his skin isn’t crawling any more than it had when they held hands. Small steps, but they would get there.

“Let’s go,” Kaz says gruffly, tugging at his jacket to straighten it. Inej is practically glowing in the dark, her cheeks are so red. Kaz tries not to feel superior, fails. “I want to go over what we found at the Slat.”

If his steps are a little lighter on the way back, well, only the Wraith can see his tell.


 

There is a peace in early mornings that Inej does not think she will ever get used to. Back home with the caravan, it had been her favorite time. The dewy grass, the light fog dusting the fields, the warmth of her blankets as she curled in deeper. On her ship she could never get used to the way the water changed colour around her, how the darkness of night seemed to be consumed by the rays of dawn.

Wylan’s house has a perfect view of the water and the sun rising over it. In a few hours, the others will wake and they will go and get waffles in honour of both Inej and Nina’s return to Ketterdam, but for now Inej sinks back against the comfortable couch in the sunroom, tea in hand.

She hears Kaz before she sees him--his limp is not so bad today, and he’s taken care not to thump too loudly with his cane as he makes his way slowly across the house. Inej watches as he rounds the corner and spots her, his face softening slightly.

“Morning,” he greets, shuffling over to her, dropping onto the couch beside her.

It’s not made to sit more than two people, and even then it’s tight, but Inej allows her feet to rest against his thigh and relaxes. “Good morning, Kaz,” she murmurs as she takes a sip of her tea, then tilts her head to look at him. “You’re up early.”

“Late, actually,” he says, propping his cane up against his other thigh, while his hand slowly lowers, fingers carefully (so, so carefully, and Inej can’t help but hide her smile behind her tea cup) circling her ankle. “Did you sleep well?”

Inej shrugs, shoulders popping as she does so. “It’s strange sleeping on such a soft bed after going so long on the one in my cabin. And Nina kicks a lot.”

His eyebrow arches. “You and Nina shared a bed?”

“She didn’t want to sleep by herself.”

Kaz nods, and they lapse into a quiet silence. It’s nice, being back in Ketterdam, but she can’t wait to go back out to sea again, drop Nina off, and find something to fight. She likes being with her friends, likes knowing that she can wake up in a comfortable bed with her friend’s terrible morning breath in her face and feel safe, but she loves the water more than she thought.

“When do you leave again?” Kaz breaks the silence, his gravel-rough voice startling her. His fingers jump and skitter away from her ankle and land awkwardly in his lap.

“Sorry,” she says, but he shrugs it away. Licking her lips, Inej says, “Probably by the end of the week.”

“So soon,” he says, then looks like he regrets saying it, but Inej knocks her shoulder into his.

His gaze when it lands on her is warm, eyes reflecting the sunlight filtering in the room. “I’ll be back,” she says, because she thinks sometimes that he needs to hear these things, that he needs proof that she is here or will be back one day.

Kaz nods, and his arm lifts to drape around her shoulders, bare fingers against the sleeve of her shirt. His arm is a warm weight, anchoring her to the sunroom, to Ketterdam, to him. The movement seemed so effortless and if she had not been touching him, she would not have noticed the tremor.

But she does feel it, and she appreciates the effort he is putting into this. Never let it be said that Kaz Brekker does things by halves.


 

Kaz doesn’t bow to anyone.

It’s a known thing; Dirtyhands has bested them all and come out on top, smirking with a blood-stained mouth and raw knuckles. Most of the Barrel bosses steer clear of him and if they don’t, he makes sure they know just how fucking stupid crossing him and the Dregs can be.

He decided a long time ago that Kaz would get on his knees for no one, and yet.

And yet, Inej’s fingers are broken on her dominant hand and her ankle is twisted and Kaz finds that despite the hard wood of her cabin floor, he doesn’t mind being on his knees right now.

He saw red when she dropped to the deck, cradling her fingers to her chest with a grimace, left leg going out beneath her in a way that reminded Kaz of his own injury. He’d shot the prick who broke her fingers without a thought, and when he fell to the deck the noise he made had Kaz’s blood singing.

Jesper had given him a look, but Kaz ignored it.

They had been out to sea for three days--only a few more and they would be in Ravka, and Kaz could see Nina for her stupid birthday and then fuck off back to Ketterdam--when the ship coasted up beside them, shrouded in a mist that had appeared early in the morning, a mist that Kaz hadn’t thought anything of, because Inej cut her hair and he couldn’t stop looking at it. The short strands reached her shoulders and would barely stay braided back; Kaz didn’t think hair could be so sensual, but Inej had a way of surprising him.

Now, he had Inej’s ankle cupped gently in his palms, fingers trembling only slightly against her warm skin. They had come far since that first, strange and arousing and fantastic touch in the bathroom of the hotel suite, and Kaz rarely had to think about small gestures like this anymore with her.

But there was something different about carefully wrapping a wound on a shoulder, or stitching up an eyebrow after a brawl; he was on his knees before her, their eyes meeting in fleeting, nervous glances that have nothing to do with their own issues and everything to do with the position.

How many times had Kaz woken, sweating and aroused from a dream that began just like this? Where he could kiss up her calf, her thigh, higher until she moaned his name loud enough to wake the city; where he could press himself to her and not feel a hint of revulsion.

They haven’t spoken, but he finds that in these moments they rarely do. Things are too tenuous, too breakable. But he feels like he needs to say something, so he speaks while he wraps her ankle, fingers nimble and light.

“Nina Zenik better be damn happy to see us,” he says, wrapping, wrapping, wrapping, keeping his eyes on the job. “I expect a great Ravkan welcome. Cakes, parades, gold.”

“I don’t think they will give you gold just because you showed up,” Inej says, amused. Her toes flex a little, but she winces. “Maybe there will be Suli acrobats.”

Kaz scoffs, “Not better than you, I’m sure.” He curses himself silently, wishing he were alone so he could tell himself in colourful words just how stupid that sounded. “Anyway--”

He can see her hand moving in his peripheral, voice stilling as she slips her hand into his hair, the fingers on her good hand combing through the sweat-soaked strands. “You need to clean up before we get to Ravka,” Inej murmurs, her voice like liquid fire. Kaz swallows, mind going a thousand different directions but sticking on an image of her running a cloth down his chest.

He has kissed her cheek, her hair, her fingers. He has touched almost every part of her, but they have not kissed, and if Kaz prayed to any gods or Saints, he might ask for the courage to lean up right then and press his mouth to hers. He wishes that he could worship her the way she deserves.

Greed is your god, she told him once, but Kaz thinks that maybe she is instead. It’s a stupid thing to say--so much can happen, and Kaz never set out to feel like this for anyone after Jordie--but he can’t help it.

“Worried I’ll make you look bad?” He asks after the silence has stretched on. Inej blinks when he looks up at her, like she forgot she said something.

A beat, and then, “Only a little bit.”

Kaz snorts a laugh and finishes wrapping her leg. The moment is gone (but not the want or the feelings) but it doesn’t feel broken. Inej smiles at him as she stands, testing her ankle out and nodding. “Thank you.”

Shrugging, Kaz jerks his chin at her bed while he grabs his cane and makes his way to the door. He feels jittery in a way that only happens around her, and some fresh air would do him good. “Get some sleep, Wraith. I’ll see you in the morning.”


 

The first time they actually kiss they are drunk on alcohol and happiness.

(Well, Inej is drunk on both, Kaz might just be a little tipsy).

Wylan and Jesper are happy and swaying together, the backyard of their lakehouse strung up with lights and decorations, the people around them cheerful and celebratory. The two married quietly a few weeks before, thinking they could escape the party, but Nina had been so appalled that she had planned a big surprise bash.

Inej is down by the water when Kaz finds her, picking his way across roots and rocks down to the shore, grimacing at the mud on his pristine shoes. “I just bought these.”

“You can buy another pair,” Inej teases. “A hundred other pairs.”

“But I like these.

He looks dapper in his slick suit, the grey a nice change from his usual black. It makes him look less dire, less old, and Inej finds that she likes this colour on him a lot. “You look very handsome,” she tells him, squatting down to pick up a handful of stones, reaching out to drop a few into Kaz’s waiting palm.

She begins to skip them across the water, grinning when hers skip farther than Kaz’s.

“Thank you,” he says, eyes flicking toward her. “You look incredible. Did Nina help pick it out?”

Her dress swishes around her knees, shorter than anything Inej would have picked for herself. “Yes.”

“Me too,” Kaz admits, and Inej laughs.

When she runs out of pebbles, she reaches her hand out to him, palm up and waiting. Kaz closes his around hers with little effort and Inej finds herself pulled toward him, into the circle of his arms.

She feels warm from champagne and dancing and Kaz. Music filters down from the house, loud and exciting, but Inej rests her head against Kaz’s chest, head just brushing his throat and sways.

It is awkward--Kaz is a terrible dancer, for all that he is good with his hands--but Inej finds it suits them just perfectly.

“I’m happy for Wylan and Jesper,” Inej murmurs, fingers picking at the buttons of Kaz’s shirt. She snorts when Kaz simply hums, but he is looking toward the party.

She is about to speak again when Kaz pulls away slightly, hands wrapping around her own. His fingers engulf hers, scarred and pale against her dark skin.

He looks so serious that the joy in her belly begins to sour, but before she can pull away or ask what’s wrong, he asks, “Can I try something?”

Inej nods. It is clear on Kaz’s face that her willingness and trust of him makes him happy, but he is still stoic--no, maybe not stoic, maybe nervous--when he lowers his face towards her.

It is slow going as most things with them are. Inej does not move, worried about spooking him, wondering if he will kiss her, if she will like it. She has been kissed before the the thought has always left a worried, unsure memory in her head. Inej knows what a forced kiss feels like, but she finds that she wants to know what a real kiss from someone she loves feels like.

Would this be happening if they did not have alcohol in their systems? She thinks it might; how many years since that day on the dock, their hands touching and their lives beginning anew? It feels like a thousand; it feels like yesterday.

Kiss me, she thinks as he pauses before her mouth, and he does.

Chaste, warm. Inej’s lips are chapped from wind and salt, but his fit perfectly between hers. There are no fireworks like Nina talks about, and there is no curdling feeling in her belly, no itch across her skin. There is only them, standing on the edge of a lake, mouths pressed tightly together and eyes open. There is only tenderness unfurling in her chest, like a cat waking from a long nap.

There is only them; Dirtyhands and the Wraith; Kaz and Inej, and she finds as he pulls away, resting his forehead against hers with eyes still gazing into her own, that it is fitting.