It had started so slowly. Almost as if the bathroom in the Geldrenner Hotel had never happened. First, it was just being next to each other as he went over plans, their clothing touching and the faint press of his body, the heat of him next to her instead of the usual space. Then a quick touch to her shoulder or hand to get her attention, and fixing her jacket or hood before she left. These little things she wouldn't have even noticed if it had been Jesper or Wylan or Nina - but monumental for the two of them. And that had been enough. For months. It was something she couldn't quite put her finger on, but each little touch made her heart thump in her chest, even if he still kept his past locked away from her.
Soon after that, she'd started taking naps in his room during the afternoon. She'd forfeited her room at the Slat in leu of Wylan and Jesper's offer, especially with all the new recruits hanging about the place. At first, she didn't think he'd notice. She was always climbing the walls of the Barrel until dawn. He was always up and working before the sun rose. And since Jesper and Wylan were trying to stay out of the fray, their house was usually noisy during the day. She could tune out the low rumble of the Slat- she could not, however, tune out Alys Van Eck. She'd thought she was being sneaky for a couple of weeks before she slipped into his room one dawn to find a huge pile of jewel-colored pillows all over his bed. She'd sank into them and immediately fallen asleep with a huge smile on her face. That night, when the city was quiet and they were all alone, he'd asked her why she never stayed.
She had wondered that as well, especially on the easy nights when there wasn't a job and she was warm and safe. Very few people had ever seen the inside of his room. He'd made it abundantly clear to the few who had that no one was allowed to stay inside it. No matter how many sleepless nights they'd planned things in it - she always had to leave. But now that had changed, and she didn't think she could survive the crushing disappointment that might come if he revoked the privilege. The panic had clawed up her throat. In a moment that she still regretted, she lied,
"Wylan has softer mattresses."
Kaz had nodded and dropped the subject, switching over to some new business he was drumming up on 4th harbor. But she had seen the disappointment in his eyes for a flash of a moment, and then again when she slipped out his small window back to an opulent room she spent very little time in. It made her heavy-footed on her trip back to the Van Eck mansion that night. He had been trying, could she say the same about herself?
But it was because with every inch forward they also had setbacks - and they weren't always his. Like the day he'd come up behind her in his room, cane clicking on the wood floor, and wrapped his gloved hand around her upper arm. Instinct had taken over. Her body moved before her mind registered what she was doing. In the next breath, she'd ducked beneath his arm, broken the hold, swept his legs out from under him and had a knife at his throat.
His eyes were wide in surprise and then instantaneously dark with understanding. He'd given her a single nod and carefully said against the knife bobbing on his Adam's apple, "so not like that?"
"No," she'd swallowed and moved off of him. And that was all that had needed to be said between them.
She didn't need to tell him how the silk and heavy artificial scent of the Menagerie still tried to choke her to death when specific things happened. He knew. And that was all that mattered. But it had taken two weeks before she let him touch her again. It was where a lot of her guilt came from. Not that she was slowing down his progress - that wasn't her burden to carry. But that they both kept so much of their past hidden from each other, even though the other person already knew enough of it.
She'd traced back the name Kaz had used for Colm at the Geldrenner Hotel - Rietveld. She'd found all the accounts, the properties, the money he had stashed away under the name. She didn't ask about it. Just wondered why he still couldn't tell her. It had been laughably easy to figure out. Then again she was the only person that knew about his other tattoo. All she could manage was that maybe it was for the same reasons she refused to speak about her parents and her childhood. Breathing life into the past could sometimes feel like raising the dead - and they weren't Nina.
The months continued to pass and a daily routine grew. It was as comfortable and predictable as it could be in the power vacuum Kaz had created both in the Barrel and the Financial District. Empires had been toppled, newcomers were hungry for their cut, and Kaz was the king of it all - calculating, manipulating, strategizing. It was the kind of measurable cadence that she had promised herself would be her cue to finally leave Ketterdam. But then he'd bought her a ship. He'd found her parents. He'd actually smiled at her mother and father - smiled! She felt the roots forming at her feet, digging into the soggy ground, whispering their promises of what she could have if she stayed. But they weren't as strong as the tides that ebbed and flowed in her heart - the promise of how much more she could have if she left.
And then there were days where she was sure he'd pushed himself to the very edge of his sanity, just to gain ground over her conviction to leave. Like the day where he'd limped into their room - and she couldn't be sure when she'd started calling it theirs - bloody and beaten after some skirmish. He hadn't been able to get the cut near his scalp to clot. After much protest and arguing about his blood besmirching her beloved pillows, she'd pushed him down onto the bed. He'd glared at her as he struggled into a sitting position, she straddled his lap, careful not to touch him, and then pressed a towel to his head as hard as she could, trapping him to the wall. He'd continue to grumble things as she held him there but she could feel him shifting underneath her.
At first, she'd thought it was just him fighting the impulse to push her away. But as they both went silent she shifted her weight on his rickety bed and he'd closed his eyes and groaned. She couldn't be sure if it was because of the pressure on his head or his own frustration with himself. Then his still gloved hands had carefully slid up her thighs to her waist to press her down into his lap. Instinctively she'd rolled her hips against the length of heat now perfectly positioned under her and they'd both sucked in a stuttering breath and locked eyes.
She'd started making careful, purposeful, little circles in his lap until they were both breathing hard. And then she stopped using the crutch of his head wound and dropped the towel. She closed her eyes and guided his hands across her body to all the places burning for his touch, even with her clothes on. The small of her back, around her hips, up her stomach, her chest, her neck, between her thighs. His roaming palms and squeezing fingers only made the need in her frantic. Soon their hands were searching for some kind of release over all their clothes, grabbing and smoothing and rubbing at each other. Until finally she couldn't resist anymore and kissed him, ready to be punished for it. But instead, he devoured her, desperate and urgent. And it all swelled inside her as she broke her lips from his own, gasping as she felt them slide down her jaw and onto her neck. She'd let out a strangled cry of release and he had followed her with a deep groan against her shoulder. And that night when he asked her to stay...she did.