It was when the pattern changed that her hope did. It had been filled with fits and starts that she had expected and happily endured. Always just enough to keep her. Each week ensuring she'd find another reason to stay in Ketterdam - her family extended their visit, a small job here or there, intel requests, birthday celebrations with Jesper and Wylan, her ships' hull needing repair. All these manipulated truths they both knew were just stalling tactics, but neither of them could bear to say aloud.
She would drop into his room near the end of the day. It always brought a wry smile to her face. No matter how much all his owned property expanded and flourished his room remained the same. She would sit in the quiet, sometimes feed the crows, other times rifle through all his things. She was still a spy after all. And then wait to hear him slowly thumping up the stairs. He would swing the door open and the grim look of determination would slowly drop into a flash of shock before it turned into a small smile. She loved that part the best, but it tore at her heart. There was no pretense between them. Just stops and starts and physical proof of what he couldn't say. And that shocked smile, as if he couldn't believe she'd stayed for another day.
First, it had been information. Endless leads for her that he'd sussed out with his own intel. Then it had been the protection and money for her family. Her mother had pulled her aside to ask why someone would be so generous without asking for anything in return. It had come so easily from her lips it startled her, "because he loves me." Her mother had sucked in a quick breath and whispered, "there is danger in that Inej."
She was right. Her mother's words echoing in her mind almost exactly a year after all of the wheels had spun to send them to the Ice Court. They were standing in a pool of darkness as they watched men tear apart the gaudy facade of the Menagerie. He's bought that too. He would turn it into another gambling house, but this one with a secret underneath - a place for the wayward to get a chance, without having a green seal attached to their soul.
She'd stood in silence. Overwhelmed. Wanting to weep and scream all at the same time. Heartbroken. Stunned again at how he could provide for her things no other man ever could - vengeance. Brick by brick. But still couldn't give her what she needed. It was maddening. Was she asking too much of him? Had her "pesky optimism" as he'd put it sunk a fantasy in her heart?
But that wasn't the reason she'd sensed danger on that darkened alley watching her latest gift from him be torn apart. She had become too big a tell for him. He had masterfully hidden all his real intentions of each gift he'd given her. But if her father had seen it, if Jesper had seen it, if she prayed to see it on his face every night - it had become a weakness. And she couldn't be the thing that finally took him down.
So she'd continued to stall. Holding them both just far enough away that the momentum between them hung in suspense. She started searing each moment into her memory. Exactly how his smile would change his face. The precise way he took his gloves off, but then recklessly threw them at his desk. His fingers brushing down her covered arms as he stepped into her space. The perfect gravel of his voice as he murmured things to make her smile. His palm up her back so his wandering fingers could tangle in her hair. The small breath he held when he'd dust his kisses across her forehead, trailing them down to behind her ear. That ragged breath he'd exhale against her neck, as shaky and vulnerable as she felt. Finally the moment of stillness between them, the anticipation, she could practically hear him wrestling with his demons to keep going. She felt it in the pulse between them, the thrumming of her heart, sometimes even the hardness pressed against her leg. But then he'd pull back, unable to make eye contact with her, and hobble over to his desk. Every night the same pattern they'd carefully, painfully, fought to enjoy. Until tonight.
Instead of pulling away his lips pressed against her neck, slowly, softly, until she let out a breathy, "Oh."
Somehow, and she didn't question why for a split second, he'd won the battle in his brain tonight. She took advantage of the ground gained. She arched into his touch, carefully gliding her hands around his hips to pull him flush against her. His lips broke from her neck and a flash of his fully dilated eyes roamed her face before she stretched toward his mouth and he eagerly bent to meet her. They stumbled toward his desk, she shimmied on top for a better vantage, letting their kiss break only for a moment as she adjusted. Then she grabbed at his belt, pulling him toward her as his lips crashed into her own, hungry, demanding, desperate. She felt it too within her limbs - they were already preparing for when he'd rip himself away from her. But what if he doesn't? She couldn't think about that.
Her hands fumbled with his shirt, ripping it free so she could dance her fingers across his bare skin. It was a risk, but when he groaned into her mouth a fire lit inside her she'd never felt before. Hips bucked, fingers roamed, lips demanded, and soon she found herself trying to climb him like the spires of the city. Needing friction, needing more, needing him. Then she was floating, clinging to him as he spun them toward his bed.
She pulled at his tie, forcing him down on top of her with glorious pressure. She rocked against it, feeling him respond as well, their breath now hard and fast between each bruising kiss. A timer started ticking down in her mind. Muddling the lust with truth - he was going to stop any moment now. But what if he doesn't? She hooked her legs around his hips, urging him forward, encouraging him with smoothing hands. A moan escaped her throat when his hips bucked into her in the perfect place. Their lips broke as they both sucked in a deep breath and she felt him freeze. Her heart, hammering away like a hummingbird's wings in her chest, seized in agony.
"Inej," he heaved. Then slid off of her toward the floor. She followed, watching in horror as he fell to his knees before her. Kissing her pant-covered legs as he miserably whispered, "I want...I want to give you everything."
She nodded. Trying to steady her breath and calm the flush that had overtaken her whole body. "That's all I've ever asked for."
"And please," he grinned at her knees, still bent over as if in worship.
"Kaz," she whispered, trying to swallow down the bile that was rising in her throat. Could she do this to him? Could she ever leave now? Was her purpose stronger than her heart?
What was love anyway? Three words? Devotion? Loyalty? Tirelessly, ruthlessly working to erase anyone that had dared to harm her? If you ever cared for me you won't follow. It felt so long ago now. He wasn't that boy anymore. She hadn't been that girl for even longer. But if she could bring him to his knees as he'd done to Rollins...had she asked so much that it compromised him to the point of danger? Did she even care if she had? There is danger in that Inej.
"I need to go," she slowly said. He collapsed his head onto her knees.
"I've run out of time."
"I've become a liability for you," she forced herself to say over the lump in her throat.
"What if I don't care?" He asked her feet.
She carefully smoothed her fingers through his now mussed hair, "what if I do?"
The silence hung between them. Just breaths, the flutter of wings at the window, raucous laughter below them.
He looked up at her then, eyes dark, "do you pity me?"
"Only when you deserve it," she gave him a tentative smile. The truth slid up her throat forcing itself to be heard. "I love you. That's why I'm a liability to you."
"If that's how love works then I've always been one for you."
She held her breath. Her gaze unwavering from his face, his perfectly dark eyes, his swollen lips. Always? He'd always loved her? Did that count? Was that enough? Would her purpose or her heart win?
He watched her wrestle with this in their silence. She watched him force his slightly trembling uncovered hands to stay on her covered legs. In the silence, she heard a dark laugh rattle around all her fluttering doubt as she thought - if the Barrel could see us now.
"I won't be the reason you…" she broke off. Even saying the words felt like a betrayal. "My plan was always to leave. You bought me a ship."
His fingers gripped into her thighs in desperation, "I bought myself time. That's all I've ever been doing. I can't move as fast as you'd like me to but.."
She pressed her fingers to his lips, "don't ever think that."
He gently pulled them away and sat on the floor in front of her, stretching out his bad leg with a frown.
"There is a difference you know."
"Me and Rollins, Van Eck, shit even Heleen."
"40 million kruge?"
He shot her a dark look, "I'm worth more than 40 million kruge."
"Your ruthless nature and criminal mastermind then?" She leaned back against his wall, running her fingers lightly over her still swollen lips.
He shook his head and pressed his lips together before quietly answering, "I know all my weaknesses. I know all my liabilities. And my biggest one is deadlier than I am."
"Kaz," she shook her head.
"Stay." He evenly said but his eyes were fragile. "Please."
She couldn't stop her bright bubble of laughter. "How can I go now? I've finally forced some civility into you."
"I'm only civil for you," he grinned back. And then almost seemed to blurt out, "I love your laugh."
Her heart swelled in her chest. There is danger in that Inej. Perhaps there was. Love made you vulnerable. But it also gave you strength. Her purpose had been to ensure no one was ever made a slave again. Together they had already accomplished so much just in Ketterdam. But maybe it was time to admit to herself that the first person she'd always wanted to save was him.
"And I love how much it pains you to admit that out loud." She crossed her legs and settled onto his bed. "Kiss by kiss."
If she hadn't seen it with her own eyes she wouldn't have believed it. Kaz was blushing. How could she leave now?
"Who did you make cry today?" She chuckled, giving him a chance to recover.
"Oh," he groaned as he pulled himself to standing and shuffled to his desk, "so many people."
The birds fluttered, the laughter reached them again from below and she leaned her head back against his wall, closing her eyes and smiled.