Stretching his shoulders, Kaz steals a look at Inej. He’s trying not to stare – he doesn’t need to look at her, even if it’s the first he’s seen of her in months, and yet –
Inej blows the loose hair out of her face and shoots him a look. “Kaz?” she asks, a thousand questions behind the single word, and he swings his gaze back to the job at hand. His throat doesn’t seem to be working, dry as sandpaper, and he raises the binoculars back up. She’s a distraction – transparently so, same as always.
“It’s good to see you, Kaz,” she murmurs, eyes trailing over his bare hands, and his stomach drops.
Despite the weakness he feels without his gloves – exposed, vulnerable – it’s worth it. She’d been gone from the city for months, and he’d almost stopped looking over his shoulder for her. Inej had once complained that she couldn’t sneak up on him anymore but since she’d been gone, he’d been wishing she could. At least then he wouldn’t feel her absence so keenly.
“Dryden’s out,” he says, and from the corner of his eye he sees a smile tug at Inej’s lips. “He should be going to meet his contact, if he’s as desperate as you say.”
Kaz has no doubt that Dryden was exactly as desperate as Inej had claimed. Since the disaster of the auction, Karl Dryden had fallen in favor amongst his council peers and was looking for a way to recoup his finances. Slaving, it seemed, was on the table, and so now, Dryden was back in their sights.
Easy targets, he thought. Still, exposing a council member for supporting the slave trade could upend markets, and at the very least, even if Dryden unexpectedly wriggled free of the net, Kaz had always known how to turn Barrel chaos to his favor.
Without a word, Inej slid into a crouch and he fumbled after her, preparing to follow. As Dryden headed into the Barrel, he caught two shadows from the gables above.
“I told you so,” she says as they slip into his room at the Slat. He doesn’t miss the smugness in her voice.
“Yes you did,” he admits before gratefully sinking into his chair. The chase across the rooftops had been hard on his leg; harder because it had been so long since he’d attempted it. He hadn’t needed to use her old routes as a Barrel boss, and though he hated to admit it, hadn’t wanted to run them without her. His face twists as he pulls his leg into place and Inej’s amusement evaporates.
Instead of expressing concern or lecturing him, as Nina might have done, Inej perches on his windowsill and takes him in. The sight relaxes him, but he doesn’t have the energy to lecture himself at the moment. He’s glad she’s home; that can be reason enough.
“You look good, Kaz,” she says and for one moment – one short moment – he lets himself drink her in.
The months at sea changed her, even more than the subtle changes he alone might have noticed. Her skin is darker, a burnished color from spending more time under the sun, and her hair seems more wild, as if the salt air had settled within it. She still carries no scent and hell’s teeth, he wants to know how she pulled that one off. He thought every sailor smelled like a fish market.
“Power suits me,” he answers and she nods noncommittally, pulling a knee up as her other foot dangles free. He wants to ask: where did you go? why did you stay away so long? Instead, he clears his throat and adds, “I didn’t expect you so soon after your note.” He hadn’t even had time to get his hair cut in the day since she’d suggested the meet.
Her smile twists into something new and an old ache turns in him, knowing that in some ways, she really is gone forever. “The sea is an unpredictable partner,” she says and he barely keeps from rolling his eyes at her.
“More Suli wisdom?” he asks and she settles back against the window frame, eyes tilted out to the tops of the buildings.
“The Suli don’t have much to say about the sea,” she answers, and then looks at him again. “But it’s good to be back, Kaz.”
(His name in her voice lingers long after that.)
Her old room is still waiting for her and he doubts anyone else at the Slat has any idea she’s in the building.
(Still a ghost – though less than before.)
He can almost hear her below him, shuffling around in the small space, and he wonders if it’s smaller than her cabin on the Wraith. He’d left the inspection to Specht and Wylan, somehow feeling as though he shouldn’t board the ship uninvited. The Wraith belonged to was Inej. As far as he knew, she’d never had something that was entirely her own, from the caravans to the Menagerie to the Slat. He had no intention of adding her ship to the list.
(Though he doesn’t like to notice it, he falls asleep more easily that night with her below than he has in months.)
He’ll master this yet.
He wakes with a noiseless start, hands already clasped around a knife, before he realizes the intruder is just Inej.
(Not a dream, after all.)
She shoots him a look from the other room, setting the tray of waffles and coffee down on his desk. It’s almost guilty, but he doesn’t mind that she’s there. She’s the only one who’d ever been allowed before, and it’s one thing he doesn’t mind not changing.
“Late start, Kaz?” she asks around the cracked door and he swallows, suddenly exposed. Vulnerable.
(That’s new, he thinks.)
“I’m used to sleeping in shorter shifts at sea,” she adds, coming closer. “And I’ve already been to Dryden’s.”
He sits up, swinging his feet over the edge of the bed, but he doesn’t miss the way her eyes track his movements, or the flush at her cheeks at his sudden undress. He curls his hands into fists, torn between a flush of desire and hope and the need to get dressed.
“It’s barely six bells,” he grumbles, the specter of Per Haskell sleeping in to noon an unwelcome image, and then catches the hint of her smile.
(He’s become an easy mark.)
“Six bells and half,” she corrects and leans against the doorframe as he stands up. If her stance seems a little too casual to be natural, he doesn’t notice. “Your office looks empty.”
He grunts in assent, stepping out of his sleep clothes and pulling a fresh pair of pants on as Inej averts her eyes to the ceiling, an exasperated noise escaping her. He ignores it and turns, buttoning a vest over his shirt as he drinks in the familiarity of it. If she’s going to stand there…
Where did you go? Why did you stay away so long?
“What news from Dryden’s?” he asks, taking up his cane at last and following her into the office. The waffles look tempting but he just takes the coffee, letting Inej swipe his share of waffles for her own.
“He’s meeting with his contact again tonight,” she says around a mouthful and swallows hard. “It seems there’s a slaver that Pekka Rollins used to use, before. They’re looking for new business.”
“The trouble with Dryden,” Kaz says, letting the idea spin itself out, “is that he’s not very good at business. It makes for a poor haul.”
“Not every job is about the money, Kaz,” she says and he turns, heading for the stairs.
“It’s always about the money, Inej,” he says as she falls in step behind him, “or there won’t be many jobs ahead.”
Her displeasure stretches out around them like a cloak, but he ignores it, for now.
“Besides,” he adds, and shoots a look over his shoulder at her, “we won’t just be running this job on Karl Dryden.”
“What are you planning, Kaz?” she asks, suspicion and curiosity mingled in her voice, and he grins wolfishly.
By the time Kaz had sent the Dregs out on surveillance of Dryden and another council member, Inej had carried the news to Wylan’s house and back that they’d be leveraging the council to expose the web of slavers in Ketterdam. Wylan had been nervous; Jesper excited; and Inej troubled by the time she returned.
“He thinks it’s a risk,” she tells Kaz, meeting him in his new office and taking the changes in with a single glance. “Wylan says the council still has their eye on you after the auction.”
“Of course they do,” Kaz says, noting the way she hadn’t sat down, or really entered the office at all. In fact, she’d barely said anything of what her letters had hinted at, or what he’d tried to say in his. She’d barely said anything but business since she’d come back.
“If that’s all?” she asks and he rolls his shoulders.
“Do you have someplace to be?” he asks and she shrugs. “My cabin back on the Wraith. Unless you need me?”
His lips press in to a thin line, holding himself back. He’s not used to this, out of practice, but he knows she’s testing him.
(Fortunately, he’d had time to plan for this, if not for the haircut.)
He shrugs, feigning indifference to match hers. “Business is managed,” he says, pulling himself up and grabbing his cane. “I thought you might like a hot meal.”
She hides her surprise terribly; the crinkles at her eyes might be delight. Her answer is less that of the slave-liberating sea captain and more of the girl he’d seen once or twice before.
“Yes,” she says, a thousand words in that single answer. “Do they have waffles?”
“They have whatever you want,” he says, and bracing himself, extends his arm. If she wants him without armor – he’ll try.
She freezes for a moment – the wind knocked from her sails – before tentatively slipping her hand around the crook of his elbow. He can feel the tension in her body and it almost matches his, easing into a shared rhythm.
The trouble comes from the fact that realistically, he’s a little too tall for this to work, and awkwardly, her hand slips down, catching at his. It’s half-natural, half-instinct, and totally unexpected. His breath catches – freezes in his stomach – he will not faint, he will not faint, he is stronger than this – but the moment he feels her pulling away, his fingers tighten around hers.
“Whatever you want,” he echoes, and though he cannot quite look at her, still counting his breaths to the echo of her voice, she doesn’t let go.
They walk out of the Slat together.
“If you’re sure about this,” Wylan says a week later, worry still creasing his brow. “If you think it’s safe.”
Kaz’s eyes flash, tilting back in his chair. “How many times do I have to tell you, Wylan,” he growls, “there is no safe in the Barrel.”
“Cut the dramatics, Kaz,” Jesper says, and Inej doesn’t miss the fact that he wore his pistols to dinner. “It’s an honest question.”
“That’s the trouble with you people,” Kaz mutters, the rough burr of his voice more of a comfort than she’d remembered. “You’re all becoming too honest.”
“Not all of us,” Wylan retorts, and Inej doesn’t know if that’s a shot at Kaz or her. He hadn’t been all too pleased when she’d appeared without warning at his house. She supposed she was a startling reminder of a time of his life that was slipping into memory, or Wylan just wasn’t used to criminal life anymore.
“As long as you know what’s coming,” she says, interrupting Kaz’s next retort, “you’ll be protected from the consequences.”
(As much, she thought, as anyone ever is in Ketterdam.)
“How will we get messages to you?” Jesper asks, concern lacing his voice. “If Wylan finds anything out?”
“Kaz,” she answers cleanly, and if there’s a smugness to his face right now, she’ll grant she’s probably worn the mirror of it at some point this week herself. It felt good to be back in Ketterdam; back on somewhat dry land and among the rooftops she knew; good to have a plan to hit back at the source of the slaving trade that had brought her here in the first place. “I’ll be patrolling the coast, but Kaz and I have worked out a drop schedule.”
When the door closes behind them, Kaz leans on the crow’s head of his cane with both hands, musing at the horizon.
“I believe that boy is planning to turn on me,” he says, startling her.
“Wylan?” she asks, looking back at the house. “Jesper wouldn’t – ”
“Jesper wouldn’t see it that way,” Kaz says. “I don’t even think Wylan would. He’d see it as helping us.”
It was a sinking feeling, but she’d staked her life on Kaz’s instincts more than once and come out clean.
“Maybe it won’t come to that,” she murmurs, and they fall in step together, heading towards Fifth Harbor. “But I’ll keep an eye out.”
By the time they reach Berth 22, the stars had begun to peek out across the city skyline, the last dregs of the sun faded from the water. It was quiet at Fifth Harbor, the Barrel gangs hanging on to a fraying truce. For a moment the two of them just stand there, drinking in the sight of her ship, not unlike the first time she’d seen it.
She has not, in fact, seen her ship for a week now – but it was time.
“When will I see you again?” Kaz asks, breaking the silence, and she can hear something aching under his voice. Familiar. It had been a good week, almost too good, and she reaches out for his hand, letting him close the distance. Her skin crackled once more – alive, alive, alive – and she steps closer, looking up at him until he met her gaze.
“Would you like to come aboard?” she asks instead, hope somehow flickering within her. After everything – they were not just a girl, not just a boy, but something – something more. A step forward.
For a long moment, Kaz doesn’t answer. It throws her back to another moment, and another; a thousand missed chances slipping through their fingers, before he nods, his coffee eyes warm on hers. She jumps as his thumb traces the edge of her hand, pulling her a step closer as he finally nods. Her mouth goes dry, a girl on the edge of a wire about to fall.
New, she thinks. That’s new.
“If you’ll have me,” he says, and her body fills up, lighter than spray on the sea.
“Permission granted,” she murmurs, something more on the horizon. Not yet – not today – but someday.
(He follows her lead aboard.)