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I Don't Ever Trust, But I Still Choose You

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Inej

Inej wasn’t sure why she needed Kaz, only that she did.

Her heart and mind were a clamor of conflicting desires. She never wanted to leave the safety of her parents arms again, but she couldn’t stand to be there knowing the lies she told them. They were lies of omission, true, but lies nonetheless. Still, she knew that her parents would not look at her the same way once they knew the truth. How could they? Once they knew the people she had killed and those who had shared her bed, how could they look upon her with so much hope and care?

It was these fears that drove her to the settee in the Van Eck drawing room, pulling Kaz down beside her. Seated like this, pressed together on the two-person couch, her parents were forced to take the armchairs, keeping them an arms distance away.

Kaz had set aside his cane, hat and coat and he looked oddly delicate now, sitting beside her in his shirtsleeves and vest. His body was angled toward her as much as possible on the small sofa, holding her hand and keeping his bitter-coffee eyes trained on her face. His gloves were still on, but somehow she knew that it was due to the relative strangeness of her parents rather than to hide his hands from her. He held her hand so tightly that she could feel the little slits in the fingertips, little absences of contact from the leather covering the rest of her hand.

“When I—“ Inej began before stopping abruptly.

She took a deep breath, fighting against the anxiety bubbling up inside her chest. She felt Kaz’s fingers flex against her own

“When I was taken,” she began again. “I didn’t know what was happening at first, but there was a woman. A woman who bought me.”

Her mother made a little gasping sound and Inej flinched. If she didn’t like this part of the story, it was only going to get worse.

“She forced me to…to work in The Menagerie,” Inej was staring at her knees now, too ashamed to look her parents in their eyes. She knew that she’d had no choice, but now, in front of her parents, she felt the hot burn of shame and disgust all over again. She squeezed Kaz’s hand and he squeezed back.

“A Menagerie?” Her father asked, voice calm but tight, like he was fighting to keep it so. “Like where they show off exotic animals?”

A tiny choked noise escaped her against her will. The hand Kaz wasn’t holding flew up to her mouth, trying too late to stop the noise. She stared harder at her knees.

“The Menagerie is a pleasure house,” Kaz explained softly when it became clear that Inej wasn’t going to continue. The rough rasp of his voice was low and gentle as he put into words what she could not. “People go there to have—“ he broke off, clearly choosing his words, “To rent certain services from people unlucky or desperate enough to provide them.”

Inej realized that she held Kaz’s fingers in a vice-like grip and tried to loosen her hold, but his grip was just as tight.

Inej’s parents said nothing and she was too afraid to look up and gauge their expressions. She didn’t want to see their disgust and revulsion for the life she had been forced into.

“Heleen Van Houden bought young girls and boys from slavers and claimed them as indentures, working off impossible debts for travel, room and board,” Kaz continued. If you didn’t know him his voice would have sounded impassive, but Inej could hear the edge to his words. “She specialized in catering to men with… a taste for women from other countries. The only way to escape that kind of contract is for someone else to buy out the contract and slowly work off the debt in other ways.”

Inej heard a soft thump and she opened her eyes, not sure exactly when she’d closed them, or when she’d begun to cry. She glanced up to find her father on her knees before her. He carefully took her free hand and press it to his face. Inej could feel the rough hairs of his mustache and the wet lines of his tears. She choked on a sob.

“My dear, brave girl,” he said softly in Suli. “I should have protected you better from these things. I wish I could wipe away these sufferings from your heart.”

Another sob tore its way free of Inej’s throat and she slid off the sofa into her father’s arms. She closed her eyes and let the tears come. Her father’s arms held her tightly to his chest, safe and warm. Her mother’s hands ran through her hair as she joined them on the rug.

These were the things she had longed for those nights in the Menagerie and then again afterward whenever she allowed herself to dream of home. The wish for the safety and love of her parents surrounding her had torn at her heart for years. But now, all she could feel was the space between them. All she had changes since she was the girl whose problems could be fixed in her parents’ embrace. She sniffed and opened her eyes. Her father’s eyes above her were wet with tears, overflowing with emotion. To her side, her mother’s strong hands were stroking her arm and her hair Her hands smoothing themselves in and out of her line of vision. Kaz was still seated on the sofa nearby, slightly apart from the tangle of Ghafa’s on the floor.

“How did you escape?” Her mother asked softly after a few minutes.

Inej shook her head, trying to explain that she didn’t, not exactly. “I tried to run away. Tante Heleen… she beat me so badly I could barely move.”

Her mother let out another involuntary, pained noise.

“When I was well again, they put bells on my ankles so I couldn’t do it again. But Kaz was there.”

Her father’s face snapped up to glare at Kaz, his eyes full of anger and betrayal, suddenly believing that had taken advantage of his daughter. Which, she supposed he had, just not in the ways that her father was thinking.

“No, Papa,” Inej said with a wet chuckle, “Kaz was there for information, not… not people. He convinced Per Haskel to pay off my indenture. In exchange, I joined a gang called the Dregs and found out secrets for them. I walked over the rooftops like tightropes and found out terrible things that terrible people wanted to do. And we tried to stop them when we could.”

Inej could see Kaz’s hand flex on the sofa cushion. It was a rose-colored version of events to be sure, but it wasn’t untrue either.

“You helped our daughter to escape?” her mother asked Kaz after a pause.

“I offered her another option,” Kaz corrected, but the older woman didn’t seem to care about the semantics. She rose quickly, with a dancer’s grace, and moved around her husband and daughter still huddled on the floor to take Kaz’s hands. She brought the backs of his palms to her lips and kissed them. Kaz looked utterly shocked at the state of affairs and unsure how to proceed. It wasn’t an expression she’d seen on him many times before. Inej decided that she liked it.

“You helped Inej escape a fate that we could not protect her from,” her mother said softly to Kaz. “You have our gratitude.”

“It was a purely strategic decision, I assure you,” he said demurely, but his cheeks were flushing ever so slightly pink.

“So you joined these Dregs,” she said, releasing Kaz, turning to Inej and taking a seat on Wylan’s plush carpet again. “What happened next?”

Inej ducked her head again.

“I’m not sure the Saints could ever forgive me for all the things I’ve done, Mama,” she admitted quietly.

“If they don’t, they don’t bloody well deserve you,” Kaz growled, his face hardening into the mask most people associated with him.

Inej’s mother chuckled softly, gently placing her fingertips on her daughter’s chin to tilt it up until their eyes met. “If you did your best, with good intentions in your heart, then no one can blame you. Not even the Saints.”

Inej wasn’t sure that her intentions had always been good, but she felt relieved anyway. It felt like a pardon, like a stay of execution for her soul.

A few more tears slipped out only to be wiped away by her mother’s soft thumbs as she cupped her daughter’s face.

Inej took a deep breath and told her parents everything.