Actions

Work Header

and when i break (it's in a million pieces)

Work Text:

 

Present day:

 

Captain Inej Ghafa’s foot struck stone without a sound. She inhaled deeply, taking in the heavy scent of Ketterdam. It was thick with smoke tangling in the sea air. The last crates of fish unloaded from hulking vessels, and from somewhere in the distance, the warm scent of spices mingling with cooking meat as midday markets closed and the taverns opened for dinner. Taking in the cramped building and bustling streets with a half-smile, Inej surveyed the city she’d once laid claim to. It was still hers, no matter how many years she’d spent at sea, each time she’d returned to her berth the city had greeted her like she’d never left. In a way, she supposed that was true. A part of her heart would remain in the crooked streets no matter how far the current carried her.

 

“Captain!” Azalea, Azzie, her first mate, shouted from behind her, “Are you heading off?” 

 

Inej cast a look over her shoulder. The Wraith was docked safely in the Ketterdam harbor once more, Berth 22 as always. It was looking a little old, tired after the rough years at sea. The white script Kaz had commissioned on the front that read The Wraith was fading thanks to salt spray and sea air. She knew she would probably need to have it repainted, but some part of her couldn’t bear to paint over that too. It had been nearly five years, and still, the pang of pain in her heart remained. She didn’t know if it would ever go away, she didn’t know if she even wanted it to. 

 

She checked her cloak pocket. His gloves were there.

 

Inej turned towards Azzie, and nodded, the barest hint of a smile flitting across her lips, “Can you take care of The Wraith until I get back?” 

 

It wasn’t really a question. Inej trusted Azzie, depended upon her, but this was the same routine they’d maintained for years. It certainly wouldn’t change now. 

 

“Sure can, Captain,” she grinned, the gold hoop in her ear catching the light of the setting sun. 

 

Inej threw one last look over her shoulder as she began to walk the familiar cobblestone streets, 

 

“And make sure Rotty doesn’t drink all our lager!” 

 

The peel of Azzie’s laugh echoed against the buildings, loud and joyous. Contentment nestled its way into the crook of Inej’s chest, a soft and welcome reprieve from pervading sadness. 

 

She was home. 

 

---

 

5 years ago:

 

“Captain Ghafa.” 

 

Inej was standing on an old wooden dock tucked into the corner of Fifth Harbor, rusted nails and broken boards jutting haphazardly from the walkway. No one used this particular dock, not since a Razorgull had been trying to spy on Dregs business but had “mysteriously” fallen through a loose board to his death on the rocks below. 

 

When she’d asked Kaz about the supposed accident, he’d simply slipped her a half-smile, full of teeth, and said,

 

“Maybe he should’ve watched where he walked,”

 

Now, she sat perched on the railing of the same dock, face turned towards the setting sun that cast a golden glow on her bronze skin. The wind grabbed at a strand of her hair that had come loose from its braid and tugged at it playfully. 

 

She knew he was there.

 

The rocksalt rasp of his voice curled around her ear, brushing the curve of her neck ever so slightly. It pooled in her heart, a comforting weight of promise, and she felt some of the months’ tension ease from her shoulders. 

 

Saints, she had missed him.

 

Turning towards him with a small smile, she acknowledged the boy before her with their customary greeting.

 

“What business, Kaz?”

 

He bowed his head, lips quirked ever so slightly, and said, “Whatever do you mean, darling,” 

 

The word dripped with sarcasm, but there was a hint of something else beneath it that sent a shiver down her spine. The good kind. 

 

“Don’t play with me. Do you need me for a job or for intel?”

 

Kaz let out a little laugh, “Good to see you too, Wraith. It’s only been four months,” 

 

Inej shook her head and rolled her eyes. Slipping off of the railing, she took off towards him, booted soles barely brushing the dock beneath. 

 

She paused in front of Kaz, taking in every perfectly tailored inch of him. He still looked like a mercher-- suit and dark wool coat parted by a white shirt and crimson tie. She noted, with a little laugh, that his silver tie pin was engraved with a single crow, consistent to the last. 

 

He might’ve looked like a merch, but the wicked crow’s head cane and sharp set to his jaw squashed any notion of black tie propriety. He was brutal, the scars scattering his face like angry constellations were white against his pale skin. Kaz was a Barrel boss through and through. Powerful and terrifying.

 

But Inej had long stopped fearing him. 

 

She stepped towards Kaz, conveying her intention with her eyes, giving him an out if he wanted one. His head dipped slightly, the barest movement, and then she was launching herself into his arms and hugging him close.

 

Inej felt him tense beneath her for a moment, until he relaxed into her touch, arms coming to rest around her sides, pulling her into him. He smelled like woodsmoke and rain, and all at once she was overcome with relief that he was again there beside her, whole and hale and perfectly hers.

 

The wool of his dark coat brushed her chin, and leaning on her tiptoes, she nestled her head into the crook of his neck.

 

A single, gloveless hand came to rest on the back of her head, pressing her into him. Her voice was breathless when she spoke,

 

“I missed you, Kaz,” 

 

She could feel his smile against her hair.

 

“I missed you too, Wraith.”

 

---

 

Present day:

 

As late afternoon slipped into dusk, the sun playing hideaway with the jagged spires and rooftops of the city, Inej made her way through the bustling streets. 

 

Her dark blue hood was pulled halfheartedly over her head, but no one in the crowds gave her so much as a second thought. That was the great thing about Ketterdam, she supposed, the world changed -- fell apart and came together again -- but the city never slept. Her eyes scanned the crowded markets and sidestreets, each inch of space filled with a vendor peddling his wares, a tavern, or a side act. She caught the parting of coin between clever pickpockets and pigeons more than a few times. Inej felt her lips slip into a smile.

 

Maybe the world didn’t change so much after all. 

 

Suddenly, she spotted a flash of black hair and heard the soft click of a cane on cobblestone, and her heart stuttered to a stop. Without the consent of her senses, Inej’s feet dragged her sideways through the crowd -- racing towards the stranger. Somewhere, in the back of her mind, Inej knew that the stranger was not who she wanted him to be. She knew that it was impossible. But her stubborn heart failed to give up belief. She’d spent too many years praying to Saints that rarely answered to be deterred by the notion of reality. 

 

She tracked him through the crowds. His gait was uneven with the assistance of the walking cane, but it wasn’t the right rhythm. The stranger didn’t walk with the same purpose. She knew that. She knew the truth. But when he turned at some standout noise in the crowd, and his face was round instead of sharp, his eyes sky blue instead of bitter coffee, Inej felt her heart hollow in her chest. 

 

It wasn’t him. She’d known it wasn’t him. But even still, she’d wanted it to be. She’d needed it to be.

 

And all at once, the crowd was too much.

 

Inej felt her throat constrict and thought dimly that she might be having a panic attack. She was going to be sick.

 

She began to shove her way through the crowd with reckless abandon, not caring who she caught with the blade of her shoulder, only knowing that she needed to get out, out, out. Ignoring the cries of surprise and indignation, Inej pushed her way through until she was spat out into a dingy alley. 

 

She pushed past a man swimming deep in drink, judging by the sharp scent of whiskey emanating from his clothes, and sprinted to the back of the alley, skidding to a stop at the weathered brick wall cutting off her route of escape. 

 

Inhaling deeply, she dug her fingers into a chipped piece of brick and began to climb. She scaled the wall, gripping each crack and crevice as tears blurred her vision. Dragging herself over the ledge, she collapsed onto the roof, curled beside a long-forgotten collection of rotting wooden barrels. 

 

Inej stared up at the darkening sky and tried to remember how to breathe. 

 

She’d been doing so well. After five years, she’d hoped that the pain would’ve dulled enough to let her live. It had taken her two years to return to Ketterdam, three before she could stand to walk the lower streets again. 

 

She didn’t cry, she wouldn’t let herself. 

 

Suddenly, Inej smelled the warm, overlapping scent of coffee grounds and baking bread, and the memories began to rise around her, a rip current in a stormy sea. She knew it was a bad idea, knew that she'd end up more hurt than anything. She knew that it would exacerbate the grief. She knew.

 

But she was so tired of fighting her own mind.

 

---

 

5 years ago:

 

Kaz and Inej wandered the slick cobblestone streets, winding through alleys and side streets before making their way, slowly, to the Geldstraat. She knew that they were both attempting to delay their arrival at the Van Eck-Fahey home. Not that she wasn’t ecstatic to see Jesper and Wylan (and Nina once she’d arrived), but she’d missed this.

 

She’d missed wandering the streets with Kaz and hearing the details of the Dreg’s activity, gathering intel on new merchers and possible traffickers. She’d missed the ease, the quiet comfort, the knowing without saying. Even after all her years at sea, she’d never found this with anyone else.

 

Her body was attuned to Kaz-- it craved him. He quieted her mind. He quickened her heart.

 

They walked for a while in comfortable silence, passed coffee houses and bakeries, from the Lid to East Stave. The streets began to grow more crowded, and Inej wished for a moment that they could take the rooftops like she used to.

 

Kaz didn’t try to make small talk, and she didn’t offer a conversation either. They always did this after she came back, talking without speaking, getting acclimated to the other’s presence. 

 

A subtle reknowing of another soul.

 

 They never lost each other, but time and distance worked as time and distance do. They change people. Dirtyhands and the Wraith were no exception. Sometimes she thought that she’d gotten so used to missing him that she didn’t know what to do with herself when they were together again. But then he’d brush a single finger against the curve of her wrist, or he’d smile at her with softened eyes, and her heart remembered.

 

He'd given her so much of himself these past six years.

 

She thought that he was trying to give himself away until there was no more left of him to give. She didn’t know what he intended to do at that point, maybe nothing, maybe become someone else. But she liked the Kaz he was now. He was still brutal, and cruel, and everything he’d always been. But he was different too, smoother -- a jagged shard of glass cast out to sea, only to wash up on the same shore with gentler edges. He wasn’t soft or kind, but he was some amalgamation of circumstance and nature that reached a halfway point in his heart. Art out of malice. 

 

Sometimes Inej caught him staring. It would be in the small moments; when she perched on his upstairs windowsill, feeding the crows that still congregated outside the wooden ledge, or at dinner with Wylan and Jesper, laughing and content. She could feel his eyes track the sweep of her dark hair to the curve of her neck, and back up to her face.

 

She thought Kaz might’ve known that she knew. He never looked away.

 

 In those moments, Inej tried to show him her joy. How her love for him, for all of them, went soul deep. In return, he’d usually brush his knee against hers under the table-- a silent surety.   

 

It’s okay , it would say, We’re okay.

 

Tonight, however, they traversed the lower districts. As they made their way through East Stave and the Barrel, Inej couldn’t help but be reminded that this crowded, cluttered, vengeful city and the equally vengeful boy beside her were her home. 

 

Suddenly, she felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up, almost as if sensing another presence. Whipping her head around, she scanned the street, searching for any potential threat. Kaz had stopped walking too and was looking around, alert. When he looked at her, a question in his eyes, she just shook her head. She wasn’t used to the city, not after the long months at sea. 

Inej jerked her head forward, and after a moment, they continued walking. She noted with some interest that the Emerald Palace, now the Silver Six, seemed to be booming with business. The line snaked down the block, stopping only at the next corner, and laughing and joyous shouting could be heard from inside. 

 

She spotted Pim patrolling outside, and he shot her a wink when she waved. 

 

When she pointed out the club’s prosperity to Kaz, he’d only smiled and, after a moment, took her hand.

 

Physical touch was so much easier between them now, but they both had their bad days, even when they were together. There were days where Inej needed a pillow between them when they slept, where Kaz couldn’t stand less than two feet away from her. They snapped at each other, got angry, grew sad. She knew Kaz got frustrated when he couldn’t give her all he wanted to, but Inej didn’t mind. She wanted him, all of him, every twisted, broken piece.

 

Because, in the end, they always came back to each other.

 

---

 

Present day:

 

When her breathing steadied and tears no longer threatened the corners of her eyes, Inej picked herself from the dusty rooftop and began to scout her way across the city. She should’ve known she wouldn’t have been able to make it on foot -- not on today of all days. 

 

She felt the familiar weight of her gloves in her pocket.

 

Grief weighed heavy in her chest, but she pushed past it. Wylan and Jesper would be expecting her. Nina would arrive in a few hours with Hanne, and for a little while, they’d all be a family again.

 

She imagined what dinner would be like.

 

 Jesper and Nina would be the life of the party, as always. The servants would bring steaming silver trays of fine meats and sauteed vegetables. Wylan and Hanne would sit beside each other and discuss the outdoors, the flowers in the garden and the great wonders of the world, and how they might pry Jesper and Nina away from each other at the end of the night. Marya might even join them, though she sometimes preferred to remain in her studio all day, painting until she fell asleep. With her memory nearly fully restored, Marya had become a more constant appearance in the Van Eck-Fahey household, and Inej always felt drawn to her whenever she was around. She had a calming presence, and Inej understood her appreciation for silence.

 

As the evening wore on, they’d all retreat to the parlor for drinks and dessert, after which Nina and Hanne would be nearly inseparable. Nina would shamelessly steal kisses from them. Hanne would laugh as Jesper pelted them with walnuts from a crystal bowl and Wylan would laugh and catch Inej’s eye with a shake of his head, as if to say, “Look at them, these people we love.”

 

As Inej made her way through East Stave by the rooftops, she remembered flashes of her life in the city, with him. Looking down at the bustling street, she spotted two girls tucked into a doorway, steaming cups of what was likely hot chocolate held in their hands. Even from a distance, Inej could see how openly enamored with each other they were. So when the taller, redhead girl leaned down to give the other a chaste kiss, Inej couldn’t help but feel her stomach twist.

 

Inej remembered the first time they kissed like it was yesterday, a moment so crystalized and golden that it was seared into her mind forever. It had been a little over a year since she’d first left Ketterdam to hunt slavers, and she’d grown and changed so much in that time. 

 

They’d been standing in Kaz’s old office in the Slat, and Inej had been telling him about her most recent takedown of a slaving ship. She’d rescued fourteen girls, all between the ages of nine and seventeen, and two of the older girls had even chosen to join her crew when they docked in the nearest harbor. She’d had a feeling they might, and was all too pleased to offer them a bunk and a pair of boots when they asked her if they could stay. She was just about to tell him how she planned to train them with knives in a couple of days when she caught his expression.

 

His face had been perfectly blank, as yielding as a stone sculpture, but his eyes were the color of the sea during a storm -- a roiling, bitter black. 

 

“Kaz?” she’d asked tentatively, and suddenly he was by her side, the strange intensity in his eyes burning even brighter up close.

 

“Can I,” he’d pulled a thin black cloth from his pocket in a single swift motion, “Can we try something?” 

 

And all at once, Inej had understood. She’d felt butterflies kick up in her gut, but she'd nodded. 

 

Tentatively, Kaz had reached up to her face with the cloth. His fingers brushed lightly over her cheeks, and he shivered, the delicate press of skin the only thing holding the cloth in place. Inej felt the light material brush her lips like a kiss, and had to fight back a shiver of her own. 

 

They just stood there for a moment, taking each other in, giving the other a chance to back out if they wanted to. Neither moved. Then, just as Inej thought he might lean in, Kaz shook his head and pulled the cloth from her mouth. 

 

“No,” Inej had tried not to let the swoop of disappointment in her stomach get to her. He needed more time, she understood. She was grateful he’d even wanted to try. 

 

Suddenly, she’d felt the cool press of silk in her own hands, and realized that Kaz had dropped it into her open palm.

 

“You do it.” 

 

It was an act of trust. He trusted her; with his life, with his heart, with his shame. 

 

Silently, she’d brought the cloth to his face, noticing the way he didn’t even tense when her bare fingers brushed his skin. She’d looked into his eyes, the color of a calming storm, and waited. He dipped his chin in consent, and that was all it took.

 

She’d kissed him. 

 

It was everything she’d ever dreamed, everything her father had told her in stories or Nina had recounted to her on one of their many nights spent side by side. He cupped her chin lightly.

 

And it was perfect.

 

And when his bare hand had come up to grip the back of her head, tangling in waves of hair, she’d felt a tear slip down her cheek. A tear of happiness. Of healing. Of there’s a tomorrow if we want it.

 

It had been one of the happiest moments of her life. 

 

And as she sped farther along the rooftops, lights sparkling through shining eyes, she felt her chest fill with a little warmth-- the last ember of a fire coaxed into a temporary life. Sliding down a drainage pipe, Inej realized where she’d unintentionally led herself. 

 

Zentsbridge

 

Her throat tightened.

 

---

 

5 years ago:

 

As peaceful as the walk was, Inej had a sense that Kaz was building towards something, so it didn’t surprise her when, after a while, he took a sharp right through an alley and led them onto Zentsbridge. 

 

The sun was setting in earnest now, and it lit the water in a fiery orange glow. Inej had always thought that the bridge held a sort of tragic beauty. Each knot tied was a sailor’s prayer for safe travels at sea. She would never know which prayers were answered and which were ignored. Even still, in a way, the bridge was holy ground. A place of worship. A place of promise.

 

“Inej,” the burn of Kaz’s voice was rougher than usual, drawing her back to the present. She looked at him expectantly, but he didn’t say anything in return. She knew he wanted to. 

 

Inej knocked lightly against his shoulder, “What, do you need the Wraith to do some spying for you?”

 

Kaz grimaced, “Not quite-- though your job is still open if you ever wish to return,”

 

Inej rolled her eyes, “You already have a spider, Kaz. The new girl, Ophelia, I’ve heard she’s good,”

 

“She’s adequate,”

 

“Kaz,”

 

“She’s no Wraith,”

 

Inej looked down and blushed. Even six years later, a true compliment from Kaz’s lips was something that set her cheeks aflame and a tingle down her spine. 

 

Looking back up at him she couldn’t deny her curiosity, 

 

“Well, what then?”

 

Kaz’s spine stiffened, and she saw something harden behind his eyes. He wasn’t angry, he was resolute. It was the same face he used to stare down men like Pekka Rollins and Jan Van Eck. Challenges. Fears.

 

It was his fighting face. 

 

Leaning his cane against the railing of the bridge. Kaz removed both of his black, leather gloves -- which he had pulled on as the air grew colder -- and slipped them into one of his coat pockets. 

 

She watched his pale, trickster fingers disappear into the other dark woolen pocket, and emerge with a small, black velvet box. 

 

Inej couldn’t stifle her gasp in time. 

 

Warmth flooded her cheeks as she looked between the box and the boy standing in front of her. His face was carefully blank, and she knew he was trying to gauge her reaction and how to proceed. Robbed of speech as she was, Inej gave the slightest dip of her chin, a signal for him to continue.

 

“Inej,” He started and stopped again, trying to work over what to say, “I know that we don’t live exactly normal lives. Nor will we ever. I’ll never be a mercher with marble floors and a white picket fence, and I can’t imagine you want that life either,”

 

“Are you asking me to marry you?” Inej’s voice was barely above a whisper, but she couldn’t contain her question.

 

Kaz shook his head, “Not exactly. I know neither of us,” His gaze flitted between the ground and her face, “Are ready for that life yet. The Barrel...there’s work I have left to do. And I’d never wish to deprive the slavers of your company at sea,” 

 

At that, Inej gave a weak smile, still overcome with emotion.

 

“But one day,” he continued, “If you want it, we can. It’s a promise ring-- where I was born,” 

 

Kaz inhaled. He rarely talked about his past beyond Jordie and a scattering of memories from Lij, but from what Inej understood, his childhood had been fairly peaceful until his father died. He might’ve even grown up a farm boy, like Jes, though they both scoffed at the thought. Inej knew how much it took for Kaz to divulge even a little bit of his past, even to her.

 

“In Lij, most of the children there were poor. When people fell in love,” He paused on the word, 

 

“Many times they were too poor to get married right away. So they gave someone a promise ring instead. It left the future open for them to take or leave as they wished. But, it meant a future. If the other person wanted it.” 

 

He was looking at her like she was meant to answer, but all intelligent thought had suddenly come to a standstill in her head. 

 

All she could think was, Kaz Brekker is asking me if I want a future. With him. 

 

And then, Kaz Brekker doesn’t deal in futures .

 

 He once told her that futures were for dreamers and believers, “Of which I am neither.” 

 

But here he was, asking for her future. Promising her his.

 

Kaz Brekker doesn’t make promises , her mind warned, He makes deals . He makes bargains. He’s the devil in the dark, the monster under your bed. He acts in his best interest and his alone. 

 

She saw concern, maybe veiled panic flit its way across his face, and that was enough for her to come back to her senses. Unfortunately, the first words out of her mouth were,

 

“But… you don’t make promises,” 

 

Kaz laughed, a low sound released from his chest in a sudden burst, “Consider it a deal, then, if you prefer those terms,”

 

“But what do you get out of it?”

 

She knew the answer before he even said it,

 

“You, Inej. You.” 

 

---

 

Present day:

 

Inej tugged a chain from beneath her blouse, on which hung a single, silver band. The engraving on the band was simple but clear; a dagger and a crow. The two of them, immortalized in silver.

 

With shaking hands, she slipped the band onto her ring finger without removing it from the chain. She let her breathing even out as she twisted the ring back and forth. The cool, familiar press of metal on skin centered her. 

 

Tentatively, she swallowed past the lump in her throat, and still holding onto the ring, she stepped onto the bridge. She thought there might be more knots than the last time she was here, but she couldn’t truly tell. Knots fell off and were added all the time, a cycle of fresh and forgotten prayer. She made her way to a cluster of fraying knots near the railing on the right side of the bridge. She and her crew usually tied their knots here and had their prayers answered, but it was impossible to tell which ones were theirs anymore.

 

The entire bridge was a graveyard of fraying hope. 

 

She wasn’t sure if she believed in the knots themselves, but it was tradition. If she was honest with herself, she wasn’t sure what she believed in anymore. She hadn't prayed in years.

 

Trust Kaz Brekker to be the only one capable of shaking her belief in her Saints.

 

As she made her way across the bridge, Inej tried to keep her head high. There were others milling on both shores, and she could nearly spot the hulking mass of the Exchange ahead, a monument to greed, a testament to the power of coin. 

 

Even all these years later (going on 11, she realized with a shudder), the memories from the night of the Auction still brought a smile to her face. It had been controlled chaos, Kaz’s favorite kind, each member of the group split in separate directions with one intention in mind -- take down Van Eck. 

 

Looking back on it, she couldn’t believe that they’d pulled it off. They’d gotten Kuweii out alive (who was now living comfortably in Novyi Zem with a new boyfriend-- or so Nina had reported) had taken down Jan Van Eck, and drove Pekka Rollins out of the city -- never to be heard from again. And yet they’d lost too. Matthias’s death was still a wound on her heart. She hadn’t known him that long, but it was clear how much he’d loved Nina. Inej had seen the capability for incredible change in his big Fjerdan heart. Losing him had felt like losing a piece of her family -- one found and lost just as quickly. 

 

She grieved for him and for Nina, her dear friend. Matthias’s death had broken her, but with the strength of a thousand others, she’d pulled herself back together again-- set in her mission to honor his legacy. She’d found Hanne, fallen in love, gotten married. 

 

But, even still. Inej remembered the night a few years ago where both of them had been back in Ketterdam. It had been the first time she’d returned to the city in two years. 

 

She was worse at dealing with the grief and guilt then. For a time, she prayed and found solace in her Saints and her hunt for slavers. She found company within her crew, contentment out at sea. But she had forgotten what happiness tasted like. 

 

So, when Inej had knocked on the door to her room, and a red-eyed, frizzy-haired Nina answered, they both had known. It was one of the only times Inej had ever gotten drunk. She hated the feeling-- it made her sluggish and dulled her senses -- two things not good for the Wraith or for a captain. She knew she still had enemies on the Ketterdam streets, but for that night she couldn’t bring herself to care.

 

She needed the pain to stop, and the barkeep three blocks away had been more than happy to supply her with drink until her eyes grew heavy and she slipped into the merciful black.

 

She’d been full of regret the next morning when a furious Jesper and a very worried Wylan and Hanne had pulled the two of them from the bar. It was one of the only times Inej had ever seen Jesper genuinely mad. 

 

He hadn’t spoken a word to her. She’d hung her head in shame as they walked the short distance back to the mansion. It wasn’t nearly enough. Once the door was shut, and they’d all made their way into the parlor, Jesper had finally turned to face them. 

 

“What the hell,” he’d hissed through clenched teeth, “were you thinking?!”

 

“I wasn’t,” Inej had whispered. She noted how he kept flexing his hands into fists and then relaxing them. They'd truly terrified him.

 

Jesper began to pace, all his restless energy coming to a head. 

 

“What you both did was reckless and completely irresponsible,” Nina and Inej shot each other a bleary-eyed look, noting the irony. 

 

“We were so worried,” Wylan added, his voice slightly timid. 

 

“Nina, love, why didn’t you come and talk to me?” Hanne asked.

 

Nina shook her head, “That’s not fair to you. You shouldn’t have to deal with me crying over a boy I lost seven years ago,” 

 

Hanne took Nina’s face in their hands, “But I want to, Nina. I want you, all of you, including the part of you that still loves him,” 

 

“It’s not your chore,” 

 

“Nina Zenik,” Hanne’s voice was harsh, “You are never a chore. I love you, always. I will love you always,” 

 

Nina sniffed and reached her arms up to Hanne who promptly fell into them, “You’re too good to me, do you know that?”

 

“I know.” 

 

Inej’s heart hurt. She was so happy for her friend, but bitterness and bile rose up in her throat all the same. She wanted to move on, saints, she did, but she couldn’t. 

 

Then Jesper’s attention zeroed in on her, and she knew she was in trouble. She sat up straighter, on instinct.

 

“Inej I…” He’d trailed off, looking to Wylan for support. Wylan had taken his hand with a sad smile. 

 

“We can’t imagine what you’ve been going through these past two years,” Wylan had started, but Jesper interrupted him, eyes flashing.

 

“Saints, Inej! How could you be so stupid?”

 

She had said nothing, even though his barb stung deep. 

 

“Do you think this is what he would’ve wanted for you? If you’d pulled a little stunt like you did last night with him, he would’ve torn down half the city looking for you!” 

 

“Jes-” Nina had warned, but he was having none of it.

 

“No. I lost him too, Inej! I loved him like a brother, and I lost him. Don’t think for a second you’re the only one who grieves for him,” 

 

“No,” Inej’s voice was cold as ice.

 

“No?” Jesper had asked, incredulously.

 

“No, you didn’t love him. You didn’t love him like I did. And he’s gone. He’s gone because of me,”

 

Her eyes shone with so much pain she saw Wylan flinch away. But Jesper kept looking at her, his gaze unrelenting. Silence descended heavy and uncomfortable in the room, a wet woolen blanket in summer heat. She hadn’t wanted to fight with Jes, truly she hadn’t, but she couldn’t help her anger. Nina had Hanne. Jesper had Wylan. She had no one. 

 

After a long moment, he’d spoken, 

 

“No,” he’d said finally, “No I didn’t.”

 

And then she’d burst into loud, unkempt sobs that shook her entire body. Jesper was the first to throw his arms around her, and then it was Nina, and suddenly she was enveloped in a press of bodies, and Inej was so sad and so grateful all at once that she thought she might die. 

 

They hugged her until she’d cried herself to sleep, and when she’d woken up, head pounding but heart lighter, Jesper had been there with a cup of warm tea and a chocolate biscuit.

 

“It wasn’t your fault, Inej. I hope one day you’ll believe that,”

 

She’d nodded even though she knew that her heart would never let the guilt go.

 

Jesper took a long look at her, “Next time it gets too much, come get me,” was all he’d said. 

 

Now, Inej made her way to the Van Eck-Fahey mansion with a small smile. She watched the buildings grow and lengthen as she passed, crowded, craggy stores replaced with quiet brownstones and picket fences. Eventually, even that gave way to larger houses and open yards with small orchards and gardens. 

 

Her feet came to rest outside a large white mansion with a red tulip above the entryway. The mansion hadn’t changed much throughout the years. It still looked impeccable, but now there was a child’s bike in the front yard and the faint imprint of tire tracks through the yard. It was a little more worn-in, a little more loved.

 

It was home. 

 

Inej pushed the wrought iron gate open and made her way up the stone pathway to the looming front door. Inhaling a breath, she raised her fist to the door and knocked three times in sharp succession. 

 

The door flew open a heartbeat later, and there stood Jesper, decked out in a suit of deep bottle green -- not quite his old Barrel flash, but something reminiscent of times gone by.

 

He took one long look at her, and then promptly pulled her into a tight hug, crushing her to his lean frame. 

 

“Saints, I missed you, Inej,” 

 

She laughed against his chest, “I missed you too, Jes,”

 

Jesper’s face was wide and bright with joy when he pulled away, calling into the house behind him, 

 

“Wylan! The captain has returned!” 

 

---

 

5 years ago:

 

With the ring glinting on Inej’s finger, she and Kaz finally made the walk from Zentsbridge to the Van Eck and Fahey mansion. Her step was light, buoyed by the promise of a future. She’d scarcely breathed when he’d kneeled on his good leg and slipped the ring onto her finger. She’d had to look at it for almost a full minute before she could even believe that it was real. But it was, this was.

 

They were the last of their friends to get married. Nina and Hanne had gotten married nearly three years previous, fairly quickly after getting engaged. She understood their hurry-- especially in their line of work, nothing was promised. Plus, Nina and Hanne loved each other deeply, there was no reason to wait. Their wedding had been small enough to suit Hanne’s taste, but lavish enough to suit Nina’s. They’d gotten married in the palace gardens under an arch of deep red roses. Inej had been honored to be Nina’s maid of honor. Most notably, King Nikolai and Queen Zoya had attended the entire ceremony and reception, complete with a waffle bar and large chocolate cake supplied by the palace staff.

 

Wylan and Jesper had been married for a little over a year. Their wedding was small, confined to the six of them, Maria, Colm, and Leoni, the girl Jesper’s mother had saved all those years ago, who had become an unexpected friend to all of them -- but Jesper and Nina especially. Inej didn’t speak to her much, but she sensed common ground and mutual respect between them as a result of having a taste for two certain stony-faced, sullen boys. They’d held the ceremony in their backyard near the boathouse. It fit both Jesper and Wylan perfectly, and Inej and Nina had both cried through their vows-- Nina much more loudly than her.

 

At each ceremony, a single chair was left empty. A tribute to Matthias. Inej had placed a rose there for him each time, and Nina always noticed with a somber smile and a squeeze of her hand. 

 

She did have to remind herself that they weren’t getting married quite yet, but that did little to bottle the joy bubbling in her heart.

 

Before she turned the final corner onto Geldstraat, Inej grabbed Kaz’s coat arm and pushed him up against the side of a gabled house. She put her hands on either side of his shoulders, an indicator of what she was about to do, and stepped up onto her tiptoes to kiss him.

 

He tasted faintly of mint, and when she pulled away, she couldn’t manage to wipe the smile off her face.

 

Kaz raised a single, dark eyebrow at her, “What was that for, Wraith?”

 

Inej just smiled and said, “The deal is the deal. And it’s better than a handshake,”

 

He shook his head, but now he was smiling too, “The deal is the deal.” 

 

They made their way up Geldstraat gloved hand in hand. Just as she was about to open the latch on the gate, she paused, senses once more alert. 

 

She scanned the darkening street, but couldn’t sense any movement. The tingle at the back of her neck had disappeared. 

 

She caught Kaz’s eye. Clearly, he’d felt the same thing, but he only shook his head and motioned for them to go inside. It was better to talk there, away from potentially prying eyes.

 

However, the moment Inej’s hand had touched the smooth brass handle, the door had flung open, nearly causing her to fall into the grinning Grisha on the other end. 

 

“Inej!” Nina squealed, pulling her into a bone-crushing hug. She smelled like cinnamon and apple tart, and judging by the smell emanating from the kitchen, the cooks had made Nina’s favorite. 

 

Pulling away, Nina turned her attention to Kaz, who was standing slightly behind Inej.

 

“Brekker,” Nina leveled her emerald gaze at him.

 

“Zenik,” He returned, flat-toned.

 

“I see you’re not dead yet,” 

 

“I see you still have a fondness for leaving crumbs on your cleavage, Nina, dear,” 

 

Nina looked down and harrumphed, “Blame the cooks, the tarts are simply divine,” 

 

“And they only make them because they know you love them,” came a voice from behind her. Hanne stood, dressed in simple slacks and a nice button-up, but they smiled warmly at Inej. 

 

“Hey, it’s so nice to see you again,” 

 

And then they were inside. Inej gave Hanne a hug, and Kaz gave a single nod, which they returned with a small smile. Nina led them through the massive entryway and to the dining hall, where Jesper and Wylan were standing and bickering about where to put the vase of tulips. 

 

“In the center, Jes, because it’s a centerpiece!” 

 

“But what if it gets in the way of the food?”

 

“Then we’ll move it! Saints above,” Wylan shook his head, wearily.

 

Hanne turned to them and whispered, “They’ve been at it for ten minutes,” 

 

Inej had to stifle a laugh with her hand, which immediately drew Nina’s gaze to the silver band on her finger.

 

Nina clapped a hand over her mouth so abruptly that all attention turned to them at once. 

 

“Kaz! Inej! It’s so good to see you!” Wylan exclaimed, his face breaking out into a wide grin. Jesper hooted in agreement.

 

Nina was still staring at Inej as if she’d just grown three heads, her hand still firmly clasped over her mouth.

 

“What’s wrong, Zenik,” Kaz asked with mock concern, “Swallow a bug?”

 

“You, I, uhh-” Nina squeaked, “Inej and I have some business to take care of, be right back!”

 

She saw Kaz smirking, as if he’d known exactly what was going to happen and it had gone just the way he planned. The bastard. 

 

Inej shot him a glare as Nina dragged her from the dining hall into the hallway by her wrist. He only shrugged as if to say, “Sorry, you’re on your own,” 

 

Once they were safely out of earshot of the others, Nina grabbed her hand to examine the ring. 

 

“He, holy shit-” Nina’s eyes shone, “He really did it. The bastard actually did it,” 

 

Inej raised her eyebrows, “Do you know something I don’t?”

 

“Only that he’s been trying to figure out how to do it for months and I only almost spoiled the secret about a hundred times. He even wrote to your parents for their blessing. But, Saints, I never thought he’d actually do it,” 

 

“Wait, you knew?” Inej exclaimed, followed quickly by, “He wrote my parents?”

 

Nina waved her hand through the air in a flippant motion, “Yes, yes to ask their permission a while ago. They said yes, of course. But I thought he’d gotten cold feet about it,” 

 

She was still staring at the ring, and her grip on Inej’s hand was becoming painful.

 

“Nina,” Inej whispered, “You knew about this?”

 

Nina looked positively affronted, “Of course I did. Who do you think gave him all the advice?” 

 

Then, “Okay, so when’s the wedding. I’m your maid of honor, right? I mean, it’s only fair-” 

 

“Nina,” Inej said, laughing, “We’re not getting married yet, it’s just a promise ring,”

 

“Oh boo,” Nina blew a long raspberry, “Well, point stands. I wonder if Jesper is gonna have to fight one of your cousins for the flower girl position,”

 

Inej just shook her head with a wry smile, overwhelmed with gratitude for her little family.

 

Suddenly, a loud crash could be heard from the other room, and the sound of Kaz swearing as Jesper laughed.

 

Nina turned towards her with sparkling eyes, “Come on, darling, your fiancé needs you.”

 

The rest of the dinner proceeded as normal, or as normal as their dinners could get. Everyone admired her ring, and Kaz ignored all questions about the proposal, but Inej promised them all answers,

 

“Later, when he’s out of earshot,” 

 

When the last of the dessert dishes had been cleared away, and Jesper had exhausted his supply of stories from Grisha training and the surprising number of mishaps he and Wylan could have when trying to paint the old nursery-- some that made Wylan’s ears turn scarlet, and the rest of the group burst into uncontrollable laughter -- Hanne suggested that they take a walk. 

 

They all agreed and briefly separated to find their coats and boots. 

 

She crouched next to Kaz as she did up her laces, noticing that he was leaning on his cane heavier than he’d been previously. Silently, Inej knelt before him and lightly massaged his calf through the black material of his pants to ease some of the tension. She stood up a few seconds later, and Kaz exhaled lightly and she knew that some of the pain had lessened. He shot her a brief, grateful smile, and offered her his arm.

 

“Come on, then.” 

 

In that moment, Inej was certain she would never love anyone like she loved him. 

 

And that was more than enough.

 

---

 

Present day:

 

“Inej!” 

 

Wylan greeted her with a wide smile. His curly, red hair looked like it had been recently cut, and he was wearing a pair of brown suspenders over a white shirt. There was a smudge of dirt on his left cheek, and his blue eyes shone. 

 

“Auntie Inej!” called another voice from somewhere deep in the house, and suddenly, a four-year-old girl with dark skin and a head of hickory brown curls was barrelling her way towards Inej. 

 

Casiana leaped onto Inej’s leg and clung on for dear life. Inej laughed as she shook her leg lightly, a mock attempt to dislodge the child. 

 

“Hey Cassie,” she grabbed the girl under her arms, and lifted her up until she was balanced on her right hip, “Still getting into lots of trouble?”

 

Cassie let out a high pitched giggle, and nodded her head emphatically, “Da says I’m just like him, but Daddy doesn’t like that,” 

 

Inej raised an eyebrow at Jesper, who shrugged with a shameless smile, “It’s not her fault she naturally takes after someone with these good looks,”

 

Wylan shook his head, “The two of them would burn the house down if I left them unattended for more than five minutes,”

 

His words were exasperated, but there was a fond smile tugging at the corners of his lips that betrayed him.

 

Inej took a long look at this little, mismatched family.

 

Casiana had been left on their doorstep two years ago, asleep in a basket, note in hand. It had read,

 

She’s an inferni, she is Zowa. I can’t take care of her anymore. Please help her. 

 

The note wasn’t signed, and though the three of them had scoured hospital records for a child born to a Zemeni mother during that time, they’d come up blank. Inej had even tried to do some recon on her own but was equally unsuccessful. It was clear that the girl’s mother hadn’t wanted them to have any way of tracing back to her. And so, after several late-night discussions, Jesper and Wylan had become parents to the most rambunctious and giggly child Inej had ever encountered.

 

The note didn’t state her name, so they’d named her Casiana - Cassie or Cas for short - a tribute that made Inej’s heart pinch as much as it soothed some of the grief. Wylan and Jesper had asked for her blessing with the name over coffee one late winter night, and Inej had given it through teary eyes.

 

She had to laugh, looking back on it. Kaz would’ve hated to have a child named after him.

 

Looking at the little girl in her arms, Inej couldn’t deny that she was a blessing. An unexpected one, for certain, but a blessing all the same. She couldn’t imagine all their lives without her. And with Nina and Hanne arriving in a few hours, Cassie was about to be the most spoiled child in all of Ketterdam. 

 

“Hey, Cassie,” Inej gently placed the girl on her feet, crouching down until they were eye to eye, 

 

“Do you want a present?” 

 

Cassie squealed with joy and Jesper laughed, “She’s gonna grow up to be a brat, Inej,” 

 

“Nah,” she smiled, pulling out a little porcelain doll from the protected pocket of her cloak. 

 

Inej had found her during her travels in Ravka. She’d stopped to see Nina and deliver some information to the king, and had had a little extra time to explore the capital. She’d seen the doll, brown porcelain, curly horsehair hair, and blue satin dress trimmed with lace, in a shop window and had immediately thought of Cassie. Inej had kept it locked safely in her trunk aboard The Wraith for months, waiting until she could give it to the girl in person.

 

Now, Cassie took it gently from her hands, wide-eyed, and exclaimed breathlessly, 

 

“She looks like me!” 

 

Inej smiled, her heart full of warmth, and nodded her head. 

 

Jesper whistled appreciatively, “Wow way to one-up us,” 

 

Wylan elbowed him lightly in the ribs,

 

“Ow!” Jesper exclaimed.

 

Wylan glared at Jesper, before turning to face Inej, “What he meant to say was thank you,”  

 

“I’ll show you gratitude,” Jesper said, coyly, and then pulled Wylan into a messy kiss.

 

Inej made a fake retching noise, and after a long moment, they pulled apart. Wylan’s face had gone bright red, but Jesper gave a self-satisfied smile and motioned over his shoulder for the rest of them to follow. 

 

The four of them made their way to the dining room, where a lavish spread had already been set up. Inej inhaled the scent of meat and spices and spotted two plates of skillet bread, perfumed with dill and olive oil. She shot Wylan a grateful smile, and he returned it. 

 

Taking their places at the table, Inej didn’t wait long to dig into the piles of food in front of her. She helped herself to a little over everything, but had nearly an entire plate of skillet bread. She knew her mother had taught the cooks how to make it the last time she and Inej’s father had visited Ketterdam, but this was the first time she’d tried their version. It tasted almost exactly like her mother's, a little bite of her past. 

 

She chatted with the two of them about life as merchers, the development of Jesper’s powers, a recent payoff from one of his market gambles, and Wylan’s efforts to encourage his mother to sell her artwork to local collectors.

 

Marya had joined them then, for around an hour, and then politely excused herself to bed. Inej was playing peek-a-boo with Cassie when she caught Jesper’s expression.

 

He was looking at her with a sad smile, and when she gave him a questioning look, he just shook his head mutely. 

 

His eyes were distant when he spoke, “You would’ve been such a good mother,” 

 

Inej knew what he was talking about-- their children, her and Kazs’. They’d never talked about kids, they didn’t exactly work into a ten-year plan for two people who had learned the hard way that tomorrow was never promised. Even if she did stop sailing one day, a child of Dirtyhands and the Wraith would be as hunted as they were. The child would be used as a bargaining chip, likely captured and tortured to make one of them break. It would’ve been a terrible life.

 

Besides, she doubted that Kaz would’ve ever wanted them. She wasn’t sure she would’ve either. The world was cruel and unforgiving, and if Inej was honest with herself, part of the reason -- beyond the terror of childbirth -- that she didn’t want children was because she didn’t know what she would do if she ever lost them. She thought that might destroy her for the last time.

 

After she’d reunited with her entire family, she’d heard from her cousins the stories of her parents after Inej had been stolen; weeping for days, sick with worry, sick with grief. Her oldest cousin, Asha, had recounted how her mother didn’t sleep and barely ate or drank for weeks after Inej was taken. Inej didn’t know how her mother had survived, and after all the losses she’d suffered, she didn’t think she could live through that too.

 

Plus, she and Kaz had never gotten to that point, not physically. Touch had grown easier between them, never easy, but sometimes the press of a careful hand could quiet the demons in the other's head. Inej couldn’t deny the wanting she’d felt, the wanting she’d seen mirrored on his face in rare moments, but she’d understood that, if they ever got to that point, it would take a lot of time. Saints, she still had trouble with physical proximity sometimes, to this day. But they’d been trying. They’d been relearning pleasure and unlearning pain, giving each other space and comfort as they’d needed it. Kaz had begun to wear his gloves less, and rarely around her. He’d given her everything, every part of his soul, and she, in turn, had bore hers to him. 

 

The memories, and might’ve beens , and could’ve beens began to build up around her, cresting in an unexpected wave of grief so sharp she was suddenly back in the alley that night, sticky blood coating her palms, a scream building in her throat.

 

Her fingers brushed his gloves in her pocket.

 

She pushed herself back from the table abruptly, causing the chair to scrape against the wooden floor with a muted shriek. Cassie looked up from where she’d been preoccupied with her doll, and gave Inej a questioning look. It was too much.

 

“I’m so sorry, I have to go,”

 

“Inej,” Jesper’s face was full of instantaneous regret, “I’m so sorry, I shouldn’t have said that. Please stay,” 

 

Inej shook her head, “I’m sorry, Jes. I promise I’ll be back soon,”

 

“Inej-” But she was already out of her seat and flying out the front door.

 

The last thing she heard was Wylan, with one hand on Jesper’s shoulder, murmuring softly, “Let her go, Jes.”

 

She locked eyes with him, and a moment of shared grief passed between them before he jerked his chin. A single nod.

 

It’s okay, it said, Go.

 

And so she did.

 

---

 

5 years ago:

 

The six of them made their way through the darkened streets, illuminated by the moon and a few scattered lampposts. 

 

Each couple had paired off rather quickly, taking the other’s hand, leaning on their arm, or in Kaz and Inejs’ instance, walking in companionable silence. She’d sensed that the touch and close proximity of others had been getting to Kaz, and understood his need to withdraw into himself. 

 

She let herself take a moment to look at the boy beside her. He was leaning on his cane heavier than before, but for the first time in a long time, he looked happy. At the very least, the permanent line in his brow had vanished, replaced with an unfamiliar but welcome peace, one they were both newly reacquainted with. He was Kaz. He was scarred, and jagged, and a little broken. But he was hers, wholly and utterly. And she loved him with every piece of her bruised and battered heart. 

 

He caught her looking and raised an eyebrow. 

 

“What, Wraith? Do I have something on my face?” 

 

Inej shook her head with a smile, “No. I just love you, that’s all.” 

 

Kaz glanced at her, a little suprised, and began to say something in return when a movement in the dark tripped her senses. She froze in place, listening.

 

Suddenly, the hair on the back of her neck stood up. It was the only warning she got before everything went to hell.

 

Gunshots ricocheted off the wall nearest to her head, as Inej ran for cover in the shadows. Nina, Hanne, and Wylan were already fanned out to one side, Kaz and Jesper taking the other. Each had their weapons drawn. Inej drew her knives from her boots and weighed them carefully in each hand. Sankta Anastasia and Santka Vladamir. They’d never led her wrong. She cast a quick prayer to her Saints to watch over her friends, to protect them in this ambush, before she was racing along the wall-- searching for the monsters in the dark.

 

Chaos erupted around her. Jesper fired off bullets left and right as Nina and Hanne leveled their powers at the ambushers.

 

Wylan was on his own, no bomb in sight, but he pulled a sleek pistol from his coat pocket, and moved to stand back to back with Jesper,

 

Kaz moved to her side as figures rushed from the dark. They were men, about seven or eight from the looks of it, and moved like old street fighters. Kaz met them first, cane swinging, pistol held in his other hand. She heard the crumple of cartilage as the crow's head connected with the nose of one of their attackers, and a pained howl split the air.

 

Gang members? she thought wildly, as she ducked beneath a swinging cudgel, rolling under and digging her knife into the man’s shoulder blade. He cried out in pain, dropping his weapon. With her other knife, Inej silently slit his throat. He fell to the ground with a dull thud. As she was stepping away from his body, Inej caught a glimpse of something in the moonlight that made her breathing stop. 

 

A feral cat curled into a crown -- the Dime Lions tattoo. Hatred and fear rushed up to meet her. 

 

Pekka Rollins had sent them, he was back, he was gathering new recruits, Her mind raced through endless terrifying possibilities. 

 

But no, that couldn’t be true. Both the tattoo and the man had aged poorly but they looked to be much older than her. And an ambush like this, clumsy and poorly executed, was not Pekka’s style. Certainly not in a place so close to Geldstraat. No, this was a personal attack.

 

She could think of only one motivation, the most dangerous: vengeance. 

 

Inej was so immersed in her realization, that she barely noticed the sounds of the fight slowing around her. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Nina and Hanne take two men down at once. Jesper leveled another one with a perfect shot to the heart, and it appeared that Kaz and Wylan had taken down another two. Kaz was just wiping the blood from the beak of his cane when Inej heard the click of a gun being loaded.

 

It fired before she could turn. 

 

“Inej!” Kaz’s cry was sharp and guttural. It wormed its way into her heart, regret and sorrow and love clashing in a supernova of emotion that rooted her to the spot. And in the center of it all was a single, crystallized piece of her heart. The piece she’d given to him.

 

I love you, she thought, I love you, Kaz. 

 

It was a shouted word. Love, love, love.

 

She hoped he’d heard it.

 

Time slowed around her.

 

She closed her eyes, eyelashes brushing her cheeks softly, knowing where the bullet was aimed for, knowing she could not escape its path.

 

“Saints, bring me home,” Inej whispered into the night, as she cast her eyes to the heavens one final time, waiting for the tiny metal ball to strike her unguarded chest. 

 

She couldn’t even see the stars. 

 

The blow never came. 

 

She heard a soft, involuntary gasp from behind her. It sent a cold shock through her bones. She knew that sound.

 

Whipping around, she turned to face Kaz. His face was pinched in pain, but he looked directly at her. A small rose of blood was blossoming on his shirt, stark against the white fabric.

 

Inej’s mind shuddered to a stop.

 

Behind him, she could hear the rapidly retreating footsteps of the Dime Lion, but all she could see was Kaz.

 

Kaz who was inhaling a ragged breath. Kaz who was dropping to one knee, body giving out.

 

Kaz who had jumped in front of the bullet. 

 

Kaz, who had jumped in front of a bullet aimed for her

 

Dimly, she heard Jesper’s cry and saw the others surging towards him. But all she could see was the body of the indomitable boy she loved-- Kaz Brekker, Dirtyhands, the Bastard of the Barrel, crumpling to the cobblestones. 

 

Nina’s scream was ringing in her ear, and she must’ve blacked out for three seconds because the next thing she knew she was at his side, slipping her body under his, pulling him to her chest.

 

“I need a cloth, I need something to staunch the bleeding!” she screamed. 

 

She couldn’t make out faces through her panic. A scarf of some sort was handed to her, and she immediately pressed it to the wound in his sternum.

 

“Inej,” Kaz groaned weakly.

 

“It’s going to be okay, you’re going to be okay,” Her voice was breathless but her mind was racing with a single, repeated thought.

 

Save him, save him, save him!

 

She stared up at Nina and Hanne, fire burning in her eyes, “Why are you standing there, help him!”

 

Nina was standing back, eyes shining with tears, teeth biting deep into her fist,

 

“Inej,” she said, so brokenly she might as well have carved Inej’s heart out of her own chest. She knew that tone-- had used the very same on Nina when Matthias had died on those docks six years ago.

 

“No,” Inej said. She refused to give up. She could not.

 

“Inej-” Nina tried again.

 

“No!” Inej shouted. This couldn’t be it. He couldn’t die. 

 

Turning her attention to the boy in her arms, she saw that his eyes were beginning to lose their depth. He was fading.

 

“No, no, no, Kaz, stay with me,” she begged, “You have to stay with me, please. Please, we’re supposed to get married,” Her breath was coming in short gasps. There wasn’t enough oxygen in her lungs. 

 

“You can’t leave me,” she entwined their fingers, pressing the ring into the palm of his hand, 

 

“You promised. You promised to stay with me, always,”

 

Desperation tore at her voice. A tidal wave was rising around them, and when it broke, Inej knew that she would drown.

 

Kaz’s breathing was shallowing when he spoke, “I do,”

 

“No,” she couldn’t keep the tears from falling down her face, splattering his skin like rain. 

 

“Stay with me,” she begged, finally, hopelessly.

 

He looked right into her eyes as if memorizing her face for the last time. His free hand slipped into the waves of her hair, holding on. Letting go. 

 

“Monsters always die, Inej,” 

 

“But legends never do,”

 

 Her voice was fierce and ragged with love, with belief that the monster, the myth, the boy who lay bleeding in her arms would regain his strength. He would live. He had to.

 

“Ahh,” His voice shook on the last note, the slightest of tremors that cleaved her heart in two, 

 

“But, my darling, I am just a man,” 

 

Kaz’s lips twitched into a crooked smile. And then his chest sunk one final time, fingers slipping from the messy tangle of her hair.

 

He didn’t move again.

 

For a moment, there was nothing but silence. Six bodies, five living, suspended in a breath of ineffable grief. A stillness that cloaked her heart for a heartbeat of reprieve. 

 

And then it broke. 

 

Inej let out a scream that was something not quite human. It ripped loose from some deep, untouched part of her. All the worsts of her life flooding back in a tide her tears let flow, and at the center of them all: Kaz. His body was limp in her arms. 

 

She had not been accustomed to begging her saints for much in her life, but for this, she would. 

 

“Please, please,” She begged for one last breath, one last smile, one last touch. She begged them for a hundred do-overs, a hundred chances, one last opportunity to save him. She begged for his life.

 

She begged for hers.

 

She could not live without him. 

 

“Please,” she whimpered, clutching his still-warm body to her chest, “I love you, Kaz. I love you, damn it!”

 

Then, brokenly, “Please come back to me,”

 

But he did not wake. 

 

She bent over his body, spine curled into a c, and dropped her head onto his unmoving chest. Still clutching his hand in hers, she began to sob.

 

She wept for Kaz, for the boy he was, for the boy he never got to be. 

 

She felt Nina’s arms wrap tightly around her, and Inej fell into them, her hand still fitted inside Kaz’s. 

 

“I love him,” she sobbed, brokenly, as Nina stroked her hair.

 

“He knew, Inej...he knew,” her voice was soft and heavy with grief.

 

Jesper knelt down next to her, tears gathering in hollowed eyes, and choked out, “He loved you so much, Inej. He loved you till the end,” 

 

Inej didn’t know how to stand, she barely knew how to breathe. If the attacker came back, she’d be paralyzed on the ground beside Kaz’s body, unable to move. She’d be dead in an instant. 

 

I’d welcome it , she thought, harshly, briefly. 

 

The weight of the grief in her chest was too much. She wanted him to smile, to stand up again and call her Wraith. She wanted to meet him on the docks again after months at sea, to hear the uneven thump of his cane on cobblestones, to watch him slip the black leather gloves from his hands and cup her chin with his delicate, trickster fingers. 

 

He never would again.

 

Grief slipped its way into the fissures of her heart, a knife scraping against scar tissue until it cracked open. It peeled away every callous and protective layer until her heart was bared for the world. Until her ribcage shattered and her heart was severed from its arteries. Until her heart lived outside of her chest for a single moment before it was torn apart by the wolves and the world.

 

They lay, shattered on the streets; a broken heart and a bleeding one, bound together and buried together on the same night.

 

And there, under a starless night sky, Inej Ghafa came undone.

 

---

 

Present day: 

 

The cruelest thing was how Kaz and Matthias had died mere weeks from each other. 

 

There was no reprieve, no time for somber recollection then recovery. They hurdled straight from one mournful day to another.

 

Inej’s knees dug into the jagged cobblestones of the alley. She knelt, as if in prayer, and stared at the marred stone, at the KB engraved in jagged strokes.

 

She had cut it into the stone with her own dagger, Sanka Marya, the first day she left Ketterdam after his death. It had terribly dulled the blade, nearly ruined it, but she hadn’t cared. In those days, she didn’t care much for anything.

 

“I thought I’d find you here.”

 

Nina’s voice sounded from somewhere to her left. Inej had known she’d come, had heard her when she stepped into the alley. There was no point in greeting her. They both knew why they were here. Sometimes shared grief was stronger than even their love for each other. 

 

Nina’s hand came to rest on Inej’s shoulder, and she leaned into the touch.

 

She’d known that Nina and Hanne’s boat would’ve docked by now and assumed that they would’ve made their way to the house, where Wylan and Jesper would’ve been waiting to tell them what happened. What she hadn’t expected, however, was for Nina to come after her. 

 

Usually, in these moments, the others left her alone. They understood that her grief was too private to express publically, even to them. But Nina was different. Nina was her closest friend, an unwavering companion, and the only one who could truly understand what she was feeling.

 

She was grateful for her presence.

 

They stayed as they were for a long time, the only noises being those of city movement several streets down.

 

“How do you do it?” she asked suddenly, her words soft, “How do you keep living after it? After him.” 

 

Nina laughed without humor. 

 

“Sometimes, I don’t,” 

 

Inej turned her head, just barely, to catch a glimpse of her friend. Her light brown hair hung in loose waves, her green eyes alight in the dark, but her face was drawn.

 

Inej put her hand over Nina’s, centering her. 

 

“There are still days when I can’t get out of bed, where the grief is too paralyzing for even Hanne to soothe, though they try,” 

 

Nina shook her head with a wry smile, before the expression fell and her eyes turned sad once more, 

 

“Sometimes I see a little red bird in the palace gardens, or smell sweetbread baking in an oven, and I’m back here on that night, and my hands are red, and his skin is cold, and I can’t feel his pulse anymore. It destroys me, a little each time,” She closed her eyes briefly, pained. 

 

“Zoya has found me sobbing next to a rose bush more times than I can count,” she snorted, 

 

“Which is always fun,”

 

Inej chuckled, the sound hollow and a little awkward, but the sharp protrusion of grief in her chest dulled a little. 

 

“I can imagine that Her Majesty is probably pretty terrifying,”

 

Nina huffed, “She looks like a startled doe half the time, and the other half she walks by without saying anything. Much love from the queen of Ravka,” 

 

Inej smiled weakly and said nothing.

 

Nina inhaled a fortifying breath and continued, “But I try to remember the good things. Like how he said my name and his laugh in those first few days on the ice,” 

 

Her face went soft with memory, “I remember how much I loved him, and how he loved me, and it makes it a little better. It’s not easy, it’s never easy, but grief is the price we pay for love, I guess,”

 

She crouched next to Inej, turning to look her directly in the eye, “And on the hard days, the worst days, I remember him. All of him. And I think how lucky I was to have loved him like I did. I take the world one day at a time. And I let the people around me help,”

 

She gave Inej a significant look, “Most of them don’t understand, and I’m grateful that they cannot, but they try. And that’s worth a lot to me,” 

 

Inej nodded, turning back to the engraving, “I just miss him so much. Sometimes,” she blinked her eyes rapidly, fighting off tears.

 

“Sometimes I think I’m ready to move on, or I can walk the streets and I don’t look for him. And sometimes I wake up and forget that he’s gone,” 

 

Tears slipped down her cheeks, all the fight gone out of her in one shameful admission, “I go to write him a letter, and then I have to remember it all over again. It’s horrible. Even five years later, it’s horrible,” 

 

“I know,”

 

But Inej wasn’t done. All the truths she’d kept bottled in her chest were spilling from the cavern where her heart used to be. 

 

“I haven’t prayed in years. I don’t know what to believe in anymore, Nina. A part of me died here, with him. When I lost him, I lost myself too,”

 

“I know,”

 

“I don’t know who I’ve been searching for all these years! He’s gone, I know he’s gone. Saints, I buried his body,”

 

Nina pulled her into her chest, just as she’d done that night. 

 

“I want him back. He died to save me,” Inej cried, her tears coming thicker now, closing her throat, “I loved him. I love him,” 

 

It was childish, she knew that. An adult would’ve moved on, an adult would’ve come to terms with reality, grieved, and gone on with their life. 

 

And yet, the grief was still so raw. It cut her up from the inside and left her bleeding like an arrow wound that was never dressed. Nina handled her jagged edges with care.

 

“Remember the good, Inej. Kaz Brekker might’ve been the most ruthless bastard to walk these streets,” Nina gave a wet chuckle, “But he loved you. From the day I met both of you, I knew. Everyone did. Saints, even Van Eck did,”

 

Inej shuddered at the memory of her captivity in his hands. He was still rotting in jail and Wylan had no intention of ever getting him out. She’d heard that he’d gone to visit his father once, about a year after the events of the auction. Jesper said he’d returned pale as a ghost and immediately collapsed into Jesper’s arms. It took a week for him to return to his normal sense, though he’d never told the rest of them what Van Eck had said to him. He never went back.

 

“He took you to get to Kaz because he knew that Kaz loved you,” 

 

“He knew I was ‘a very valuable investment ,’” Inej quipped, weakly.

 

Nina rolled her eyes, “He’s lucky I never got the chance to stick my boot up his ass for saying that to you,” 

 

“I would’ve liked to see that,” 

 

Nina smiled before turning her attention to the stone. Her mouth pinched at the corner, as she tried to hold back tears. Inej knew it was for her benefit, knew that her face often mirrored the same mask of grief, but it hurt so much more coming from Nina.

 

“I know it’s stupid, but sometimes I can’t believe we were here when it happened,”

 

Inej understood what she meant, “I think a part of me thought he could survive anything,” 

 

Her hands were abruptly covered in the memory of blood, caking on her palm as it dried, “And then he died to save me. Because of me,”

 

“Inej,” Nina’s voice was harsh, “That’s not true,” 

 

“Maybe not,” Inej stared at her un-bloody palms through shining eyes, “But it feels like it,” 

 

“You saved him,”

 

“We saved each other. That’s how it always was,”

 

She remembered thinking that there were too many lives saved between them to tally, a neverending debt of near misses and unspoken promises.

 

“And then I didn’t. And I lost him,” 

 

“That’s not what I meant,” Nina said, and when Inej turned to face her, she could see that her friend was somewhere far away.

 

“You saved him . Not his life, but his heart. His soul. Kaz was broken when he found you. You helped piece him back together. Never forget that,” 

 

It didn’t make the grief or guilt easier. She had tasted the promise of a future and had it ripped away from her in a single night. Her vision blurred between the engraved stone and her memories of the night. Blood mixing with tears, the street rusting red. Faded eyes and a punctured heart. But even as she wandered in and out of memory, she felt herself coming back to the present. Blood washed from stone and she was still breathing. 

 

She inhaled deeply, pressing herself into Nina’s embrace for a moment. It said,

 

It’s okay. I’m gonna be okay.

 

“That’s my girl,” Nina whispered into her hair. They stayed on the ground for a few more moments, mourning and moving on, before Nina extracted Inej from her arms and stood up.

 

“Come on,” Nina said, pulling Inej to her feet, “I heard there were apple tarts.” 

 

---

 

5 years ago:

 

The five of them remained as they were, circled around the body of a boy they’d all grown to love. 

 

Inej’s sobs had subsided into numb disbelief. She couldn’t feel her body. It was like every nerve in her had been switched off. She wasn’t sure if she was even breathing anymore. It felt like she had died right beside him. 

 

After what felt like hours, she saw Jesper motion to Wylan-- tear tracks staining his face-- and they silently made their way up the street. They returned a little while later, a dusty stretcher carried between them.

 

“Inej,” Jesper’s voice was rusty when he spoke, “We need to move him,” 

 

She didn’t move, didn’t speak. She gave no indication she’d heard him. 

 

“Inej,” Nina’s voice was muffled in her hair, “It’s not safe to stay here. We need to take him home,” 

 

At that, Inej regained enough control of her body to force herself to stand up. She got to her feet with shaking limbs. She still didn’t speak as Jesper and Wylan lifted Kaz’s body onto the stretcher. The ground beneath him had rusted red. 

 

Nina left Inej’s side long enough to close his eyes.

 

Straightening his tie, Nina murmured, “No mourners,”

 

“No funerals,” the rest replied. 

 

Inej remained silent. She wasn’t sure she was capable of speaking.

 

As Jesper and Wylan lifted the stretcher, she watched as Kaz’s limp hand fell to the side. She went to him then, and without looking at his face, took his ungloved hand.

 

It was cold to the touch. 

 

They began to walk. 

 

Inej made it all of three feet before she collapsed.

 

-

 

When she woke again, it was morning, and she was on the couch in the mansion’s living room, the rest of the group, minus Jesper, stood around her. For a moment, she forgot why they were looking at her with such blatant pity that it made her skin crawl. 

 

And then she remembered. 

 

Inej looked to Nina first, and Nina nodded her head-- a silent confirmation that her worst nightmare wasn’t a nightmare at all. 

 

Someone had washed the blood from her hands and changed her clothes. 

 

Inej couldn’t breathe. She started gasping and choking on air that wasn’t there. Her chest squeezed painfully tight. 

 

Nina put a hand on her shoulder and it took all of Inej’s willpower to shake her off instead of slap her hand away. Shaking her head, she looked straight ahead, unblinking. Kaz had been the only one who’d been able to truly see her, even when she tried to disappear. Now, more than ever, she wished she could slink into the shadows. But even the Wraith couldn’t disappear if she had nowhere to go. 

 

Suddenly, Jesper appeared in the doorway. His shirt was rumpled and had come partially untucked from his slacks, collar half turned up. His face was puffy and his brown eyes were hollowed. His easy, loping stride had disappeared, replaced with stiff, stilted movements. He saw her staring and mustered up a half-smile.

 

It didn’t reach his eyes. 

 

He looked how Inej felt-- destroyed. 

 

“Anika’s here,” his voice was hoarse, as if he’d been screaming.

 

A blonde head appeared behind him and a moment later, Anika had pushed past him and into the center of the room. Her eyes were red, bloodshot from crying or sleep deprivation, Inej wasn’t sure.

 

She surveyed the group as if checking to ensure that everyone who needed to be there was present. Her focus narrowed in on Hanne, who shifted uncomfortably, but Nina slipped her hand into their’s and Anika nodded slightly. 

 

“Close the door,” 

 

Jesper did as he was told. 

 

Anika inhaled, and then looked Inej right in the eyes when she spoke, “It’s out. The Barrel knows,” 

 

Ice washed down her spine. Already. The Barrel already knew that Kaz Brekker was…

 

Her mind stalled out, she couldn’t bring herself to think it.

 

Inej nodded mutely, and Anika took that as a cue to continue, “First order of business, the Dregs. We’ve lost our leader. Other gangs might take this as an opportunity to take over us,”

 

“It’s not a question, Ani,” Jesper’s voice was clearer now, “It’s you. You were Kaz’s lieutenant and he trusted you above almost anyone,” 

 

The others instinctively looked at Inej, before turning their gazes away just as quickly. Wylan took Jesper’s hand. 

 

“The Dregs are yours,” he said.

 

Anika nodded, “I just wanted to be sure that there wasn’t another plan,” 

 

She was looking at Inej, but Inej kept her gaze trained on the floor. 

 

“Okay,” she said, after a moment, “Next order of business,” she pulled a thin, crisp envelope from the satchel at her hip. 

 

“He left a will,” 

 

At that, Inej looked up. The rest of the room was looking at each other, unsure of how to proceed. 

 

Anika wasn’t about to waste time they didn’t have, “I’m gonna leave it with you guys and give you a moment,” 

 

At their confused expressions, she shook her head, “I’ve already read over it. I need to get back to the Slat before all hell breaks loose. Find me if you need anything,” 

 

Anika looked at them one last time, before her gaze slipped to Inej, “I’m sorry,” she whispered softly, and then she was gone. The door shut with dull finality. 

 

For a heartbeat, no one moved. Then Wylan extracted his hand from Jesper’s and picked up the envelope from where Anika had left it on the burnished wood table. 

 

His voice shook, “Who wants to,” 

 

The room was silent.

 

“I will,” Hanne’s voice was level. They took the envelope from Wylan’s hands and smoothly pulled out the paper inside it. Inej could see the black script through the back. 

 

She said nothing.

 

Clearing their throat, they began to read, “This is the Last Will and Testament of Kaz Rietveld,” 

 

Inej saw the group exchange looks and realized that they had never heard Kaz’s real last name before. He’d told her one late night in the Slat as he’d recalled details from his life in Lij. She’d thought the last name had suited him.

 

“Is that what the R tattoo is for?” she’d asked, and he’d nodded.  

 

Hanne continued, “and declares that I, presently of sound mind and body and having reached legal age, do hereby express my last wishes and desires without undue influence or duress of others. I hereby revoke any and all other wills and codicils heretofore made by me either jointly or separately.

 

To Anika Barlowe, I leave the Slat, as well as nominate her as the leader of the Dregs. I grant her full control over the finances and maintenance of all Dreg-controlled properties.

 

To Hanne Zenik,” Their voice was a whisper, clearly surprised he’d included them. 

 

Nina’s eyes shone.

 

“I leave The Pearl, The Crow’s Call, and The Wolf -- fully crewed -- as well as a berth for each in Fifth Harbor to aid in the success of their personal mission. 

 

To Wylan Van Eck-Fahey and Jesper Van Eck-Fahey, I leave my shares in the Crow Club as well as 10% of all proceeds from my shares in Lid properties.

 

To Nina Zenik,” Nina let out a small, involuntary sob, “I leave my shares in all properties on West Stave, in addition to a permanent prepaid tab at The Garden Palace for all the waffles she could ever desire,” 

 

Nina choked on a laugh, tears in her eyes, “The bastard,” 

 

Hanne smiled at her with so much love that Inej thought her heart might burst.

 

“To Inej Ghafa,” Here Hanne paused, tears springing in their eyes, “I leave my shares in Fifth Harbor to further her quest for justice, as well as The Spider and The Phantom, equipped with a full crew for each, should she choose to keep them on. I also leave her all of my remaining personal effects not previously mentioned,”

 

Inej tried to come to terms with it. It was a lot of money for certain, but his things. He’d left her everything of his that he had. 

 

“Finally, to Wylan Van Eck-Fahey, Jesper Van Eck-Fahey, Nina Zenik, and Inej Ghafa, I leave my shares in the Silver Six, to be divided evenly among the four of them,” 

 

She heard Nina start to cry.

 

“Pending the distribution of my listed estate, all personal income remaining from shares or investments will be equally divided between the Dreg’s coffers and any future children of the recipients detailed in my will.”

 

Jesper and Wylan were crying now too, and she saw Wylan bury his face in Jesper’s chest, body shaking. 

 

Still, Inej didn’t speak. 

 

Hanne folded the paper and slipped it back into the envelope, eyes shining. 

 

“That’s all,” they whispered. 

 

Everyone was quiet for a long time

 

Wylan was the first to break the silence.

 

“What do we do now?” he whispered, still pressed into Jesper’s side. 

 

Nina’s head rose from where she’d been tucked into the curve of Hanne’s neck. Pieces of her brown hair were stuck to her cheek, and the rest fell in haphazard waves around her shoulders. With a look around, Inej realized that they all looked wrecked. 

 

What had Kaz said he’d intended to leave behind when he was gone? 

 

Damage. 

 

Nina’s voice was empty, “We bury him.” 

 

-

 

They sat around the table that night, steaming mugs of coffee with chocolate cupped in clenched hands. 

 

Anika had been by earlier to ensure that they’d read and understood the terms of the will. She’d dispatched four members of the dregs to run patrols around the house. Inej was glad to see how well Anika was handling everything. She was a born leader, more charismatic than Kaz but nearly as ruthless. Inej had gained a lot of respect for her in those terrifying few days in Ketterdam before and after the auction, and she’d been Kaz’s right hand for years. 

 

Before she left, she’d pulled Inej aside and handed her a letter sealed with wax pressed into a black crow and cup.

 

“He left this for you,” Anika said, and then after a moment, “He loved you, I hope you know that. I’ve been in the Dregs since I was fourteen, and I-” she looked down, spotted Inej’s hand, and couldn’t mask her sorrow in time.

 

She shook her head and looked up at Inej, but she wasn’t really looking at her, “I never thought I’d see Kaz...I don’t know if happiness is the right word but,” she sniffed, rubbing her nose with the back of her hand,

 

Her voice was fierce when she finally continued, “You made him better,” 

 

Why did people think that telling her how much he’d loved her would make her feel better? It only drove the knife deeper into her gut. 

 

They stood like that, facing each other, and Inej sensed that there was more she wanted to say, saw the way her nose scrunched as if she was fighting back tears, but Anika only gave a curt nod and left her standing in the hallway without another word. 

 

Now, she sat with the others at the ornate dining table and stared at her hands. 

 

The others were discussing places to bury him. Jesper had suggested Lij, but that was shot down quickly. 

 

“Ketterdam was his home,” Nina had said with finality, and no one argued.

 

Wylan offered any of the Van Eck properties, “There are some nice plots with lots of sunshine and flowers,”

 

Jesper laughed a little, “Sunshine and flowers. Saints, merchling, did you know him at all?”

 

Wylan blushed and looked down, “Yeah, maybe not,”

 

They all knew he would’ve wanted to be burned on the Reaper’s Barge, “like all proper criminals,” but none of them were willing to see that particular wish come to fruition. They couldn’t bury him in the Barrel because there was no place with enough space that wouldn’t be vandalized or damaged.

 

As the night wore on, and the coffee in their cups grew cold, it got late enough that they began to spitball answers.

 

“Sweet reef,” Wylan offered.

 

“Fifth Harbor,” Jesper shot back.

 

“Ravka,” Nina said, throwing her hands up. 

 

“No way, Zenik,”

 

“Saints, Jesper, I was kidding,” Nina’s voice was sharp with the edge of anger. 

 

If they kept going like this, it was going to devolve quickly.

 

“Black Veil,” Inej said, her voice barely over a whisper, “Under the willow tree.”

 

 She didn’t look up. 

 

It was the first thing she’d said in over a day.

 

The rest of the group exchanged glances and nodded.

 

Black Veil it was. 

 

-

 

Inej slipped into the boathouse that night when everyone had gone to bed. They’d gone their separate ways almost immediately after they’d agreed on Black Veil and plans were made for the burial the next day. Inej hadn’t spoken since. 

 

She’d sat at the table for hours, exhausted, but too afraid of her dreams to sleep. Every time she closed her eyes, she saw his blank face and the blood caking her palms. She was still waiting to hear the uneven thump of his cane on the floorboards. She wondered if she’d always be waiting.

 

Inej silently opened the boathouse doors and flipped on the electrical switch. The house lit up with a soft yellow glow from the few lightbulbs dotting the ceiling. She made her way over to the casket in the corner. 

 

Anika and Wylan’s combined assets had managed to secure them a casket, to the best of their specifications, within a day's notice. It was sleek and black, embossed with the crow and cup on the lid. It was currently resting on top of an old workshop table that had been too elaborately to have justified its position in a woodshop.

 

Inej ran her hand along the lip of the lid, pausing just before the latch.

 

She wasn’t sure if she could do this. She needed to do this. 

 

She ran her hand over the outline of the letter in her coat. She hadn’t been able to bring herself yet and didn’t want to ruin the last piece she had of him by forcing herself to open it. 

 

She wouldn’t do that to him.

 

Carefully, she lifted a single, black latch and gently opened the lid. The casket was lined with black satin, and Inej had to appreciate the continuity even in death. It suited him.

 

It took her several long minutes to look down at his body, knowing that somehow, that singular action would kill her hope more than anything else. Once she saw him, she knew she wouldn’t be able to unsee it, no matter how hard she might try.

 

With a deep breath, Inej looked down.

 

She was all at once relieved and horrified that they hadn’t changed his clothes. It was horrible to see the bloodstain on his chest, it had dried a dark crimson and she could see where it stuck the shirt to his body. Yet, she knew that Kaz would’ve hated having all those hands on him, even in death.

 

His face was pale, his eyes and lips closed so that the little scar at the corner of his mouth was stark against the pallor of his skin. He still looked beautiful. 

 

Deadly, and dangerous, and cruel, and everything he’d always been. 

 

But beautiful all the same. 

 

Inej stood beside the casket for a long time, staring down, wondering why her eyes were vacant of tears. It appeared that she’d reached the bottom of her heart, and now she felt...empty. Not nothing, never nothing. Just vacant. 

 

Waiting.

 

She noticed that his gloves and cane were placed carefully on the table beside the casket, as if someone wasn’t quite sure what to do with them, but knew they couldn’t leave them behind.

 

Picking it up, she gently placed the crow's head cane beside his body, tucked into the gap between his arm and torso. 

 

May it serve you dutifully in the next life , Inej thought.

 

She brushed back a stray lock of hair that had fallen onto his forehead. His skin was so cold. She did not recoil.

 

She stayed by his side through the night, keeping vigil until the sun began to rise on the horizon and she could hear sounds of the house waking up.

 

She looked at the boy she loved and swore to stay strong with every shard of her shattered heart. He had given her so much, had given her purpose and a home. And then he’d become her home.

 

His tie was slightly crooked. She fixed it.

 

I love you, she thought.

 

“I love you,” she said.

 

Inej looked at the gloves still clutched in her hands. She should leave them with him, covering the bullet wound on his chest. She should let him go.

 

But she could not.

 

But she’d lost so much of him already. She needed something.

 

Closing the casket lid with a soft click, Inej slipped the gloves into her pocket and made her way back to the house. 

 

-

 

The funeral was a small affair. 

 

The five of them rowed out to Black Veil a little after dawn. They’d sent Specht and Rotty out to the island earlier. They’d offered to bring the headstone and dig the grave under the old willow on the island where they’d spent so much time those tense nights after the heist. Inej had rarely been back to the island since.

 

Kaz had bought it after they’d gotten their payout from the Auction. He’d paid someone to clean it up a little, but otherwise, it had been left unchanged.

 

“We might need it someday,” was all he’d said when Inej had asked him about it. She doubted that this was what he’d meant, but she couldn’t figure a better place to lay him to rest.

 

When their boat docked, Rotty was waiting to pull them to shore. They left it by a large boulder covered in moss, and then Jesper had signaled to the others to retrieve the casket from where it lay at the bottom of the boat.

 

Jesper and Wylan took one side, Nina and Hanne took the other. Inej followed them, walking slightly behind, a bouquet of red geraniums clutched in her hands. 

 

When they arrived at the tree, they saw the headstone already standing before a plot of dirt that had been dug up. 

 

It was a traditional, curved grey stone, engraved with the crow and cup symbol. It read,

 

Kaz Brekker

 

No Mourners, No Funerals

 

There was no birthdate and death date, no emotional epitaph. It was what he would’ve wanted.

 

They all stood around the gravestone. 

 

Jesper began to speak, but the words dulled in her ears.

 

This is real, this is real, this is real.

 

She would make herself believe it. She had to believe it. 

 

She could not.

 

Inej only realized that Jesper had stopped talking when she noticed the rest of the group turned towards her. 

 

“Inej,” Wylan prompted, “Would you like to say anything?” 

 

She opened her mouth and nothing came out. 

 

She shook her head.

 

Nodding, he motioned to the others. They each took up their previous position on either side of the casket and lifted.

 

The ring on Inej’s finger dug into her skin. 

 

Slowly, with enormous care, they lowered his body until it rested neatly on the ground of the pit. Nina came to stand beside Inej. 

 

“It’s your turn now, love,” she whispered, motioning to the pile of dirt beside the plot. 

 

Numbly, Inej made her way to the pile and scooped up a handful. She clenched it tightly in her fist, trapping the dirt under her nails. 

 

She was so close to breaking. 

 

With a shaking hand, she sprinkled the dirt over the grave.

 

She dropped the bouquet.

 

Inej collapsed when the first handful hit the casket. 

 

Every bit of the horror she’d been suppressing came rushing back at her as it hit her over and over again, 

 

He’s gone, he’s gone, he’s gone. 

 

But gone implied the potential of return. It simply meant, no longer present.

 

No, he was dead.

 

Kaz Brekker, the boy who’d taught her how to scale walls, and pick locks, and throw knives. The boy who’d bought her her freedom, twice over, and then had gifted her her first ship. The boy who smiled like cut glass, who was broken, and twisted, and hers. 

 

A boy who, against every odd, had tried .

 

“I love you,” she whispered.

 

“I love you,” she cried. 

 

It was not enough.

 

Her heart was breaking again, and this time it was as if someone had dug into her chest with a scalpel and pulled it out bleeding and burning red.

 

She remembered everything. Memories of his smile intermingled with his still face, paralyzed in death. The rhythm of his cane melded with the slowing beat of his heart. He was on one knee, ring in hand. He was on one knee, blood blooming on his shirt. 

 

He was, he was, he was.

 

He was gone. 

 

He was dead.

 

Each of their memories shared became the past tense, their life together and apart faded into was’s and were’s because he was gone and he was never coming back.

 

She pulled his gloves from her pocket and started to sob, bent over on her knees, almost in prayer. She hugged them close to her chest and let the memories wash over her. She would ride out this storm, the gloves her driftwood in the freezing water.

 

No one came near her.

 

Hours passed, or maybe only one, but then Nina had lightly pressed her hand on Inej’s shoulder,

 

“We have to go,” 

 

Inej nodded. She tried to pull herself together, she tried to be strong. 

 

The grave was filled in with dirt, now. She hadn’t even noticed. 

 

Slipping the gloves back into her pocket, Inej picked up the flowers from where she’d cast them aside when she’d fallen. She made her way to the gravestone and placed them at the base. Then, without looking at the others, she bent and kissed the top of the gravestone. 

 

“No mourners,” she whispered. 

 

They made their way back to the boat where Specht and Rotty were waiting to row them to shore.

 

-

 

That night, alone in her room at the mansion, Inej let go. 

 

She cried until she couldn’t remember how to breathe, until she was gasping, until she was too exhausted to sit up.

 

Anika had been by earlier in the day. Her face was grave when Nina answered the door, and all she’d said was, 

 

“We found him. He claimed they were seeking vengeance for Pekka,” Anika’s voice was tight.

 

“We took him apart. It’s done,”

 

There had been blood speckled on her sleeves.

 

Inej had felt a momentary peace. The bastard who had murdered Kaz was dead, likely tortured at the hands of the Dregs until he’d begged for the bullet.

 

She’d almost smiled. 

 

It was a horrible thought, and yet, she hadn’t felt shame or regret.

 

She’d felt nothing at all.

 

Now, Inej picked herself up off the floor and stumbled over to the vanity.

 

His gloves lay on the side table.

 

Looking in the mirror, she almost shuddered at the reflection staring back. Her eyes were hollow and bloodshot, deep bags dark underneath. Her mouth was pressed into a thin line. She looked wrecked. 

 

But she had something to do first.

 

With shaking hands, Inej took an old necklace chain from where she’d been keeping it in the top right drawer of her vanity. It was shining silver, and she slipped off the ruby pendant that had, until recently, been the centerpiece of the necklace. She’d taken it from a slaver's ship, intending to give it to one of the girls or pawn it if needed.

 

But she hadn’t.

 

Placing the pendant back into the same vanity drawer, Inej slipped her ring off her finger. 

 

She couldn’t wear it on her hand anymore, it was too painful.

 

The ring slid onto the chain without a sound.

 

---

 

Present day:

 

Inej rowed to Black Veil a little after dawn.

 

Her sleek little rowboat was named The Ferolind II and she couldn’t deny the fact that she’d chosen the boat for just that reason alone. She liked the light burn in her arms as she pulled against the Ketterdam current. It centered her. 

 

After a while, with the sun slowly rising in the sky, Inej docked on the island. She jumped off the bow and pulled the boat up onto the sandy shore. Dragging it behind the same large rock that she did every time she came, Inej made her way towards the white willow tree. 

 

If possible, the tree was even larger these days. Its hulking branches made a whispering sound as they brushed against each other in the light breeze. Inej had discovered, even in those first few nights after the others had rescued her from Van Eck, that the island had a song to it. It had a voice. She could still pick it out, even now -- the way the water crashed against the rocks, the tumble of wind through the tombs, the whisper of the willow tree. It was an odd juxtaposition of life and death, a bubble of primordial beauty scattered with tombstones and mausoleums.

 

Inej skirted around those as she walked.

 

They’d buried him in the only part of the island that even moderately escaped the white marble masses, and Inej had never been more grateful for this single, secluded place.

 

Grass had grown over the fresh dirt, and vines snaked along the ground in a twisting carpet, yet somehow they’d left the plot untouched. Perhaps that was Kaz’s way of cursing the island from the beyond. 

 

Smiling a little to herself, Inej sat down beside the gravestone. 

 

It was nearly as perfect as the day they’d buried him, a little more weathered after the years, and there was a small patch of moss growing up on one side. Unsheathing Sankta Petyr, her first blade -- the one that Kaz had given her --from her forearm, Inej began to lightly scrape at the moss. She worked until it was all gone, and the stone was once more untouched.

 

Slipping her knife back into her sleeve, Inej traced the engraving of his name on the stone with the tip of her finger. 

 

Kaz Brekker.

 

She placed the bouquet of red geraniums she’d brought at the base. She brought them every time.

 

Raising her hand to the breast pocket of her cloak, she felt the familiar outline of the letter. Drawing it out, she gazed at it for a long time. The black wax was still perfectly molded into the crow and cup even as the paper had grown tired from years of the letter’s overuse. 

 

She’d opened the letter on the third night, the night after her ring had come off. Since then, she’d read and reread the letter over a hundred times. 

 

She unfolded it, and sitting beside his gravestone, the first breath of morning air brushing her cheeks, Inej once more began to read.




Inej,

 

If you’re reading this, then I’m sorry. We both know why you would’ve received this letter, and if you don’t, you do now. 

 

I wasn’t always good to you, Inej. I was rarely good to you, especially in those first few years we worked together. I was growing to love you then, and I didn’t know what to do with myself. 

 

Love had no place in our world. It couldn’t. 

 

But the first time I met you, I hadn’t heard you, hadn’t seen you. You’d appeared beside me and offered a deal, and like any proper thief, I changed the terms.

 

If I’m honest, which I rarely am, I thought you might run. I had already learned the price of blind trust and knew you had too. 

 

But you were always so good. 

 

Yet, goodness had no place in the Barrel, and so I waited for it to get kicked out of you. I thought you’d learn, with every punch thrown and throat slit and con we ran, that the people around you, myself especially, weren’t worth your tears or your prayers. We were a ruthless people, concerned only with survival, feeding on the greed and foolishness of others. I taught you how to pick locks and throw knives, and left you to fend for yourself. 

 

I figured that would be enough, that you would finally learn the same lesson I had.

 

But you didn’t.

 

You taught yourself forgiveness, dedicated your heart to Saints that rarely answered, and I scoffed at you. I didn’t understand how you could keep looking for the good in a world that had not chosen you.

 

I submerged you in the rotten underbelly of a beautiful city, and you managed to keep your head high through the refuge. 

 

It terrified me.

 

Because despite all that I’d done, all that I’d made you do, you looked at me the same way. Always looking for the good, always searching for the redemption I didn’t seek. But I trusted you.

 

And as the years passed, and everything spiraled and came together again, I tried to deny wanting you. 

 

I couldn’t even touch you, but I couldn’t let you go.  

 

I couldn’t be half the man you deserved. I’m still not.

 

So I gave you what I could -- my anger, and spite, and revenge. And a promise, that I would come for you, always, no matter the terms, no matter the cost. I would wreck myself for you.

 

I could make no other promises, no guarantees of safety or happiness when there was none to be found.

 

The Barrel taught me that there was always more to lose. You taught me there was always more to give.

 

I was content in my violence and vindication. And then suddenly, I wasn’t.

 

In the simplest terms, I love you. You put a broken boy back together again, showed me that there was life after survival if one was only brave enough to find it. 

 

I’ve never been worthy of your love. I could spend all of my life on my knees in worship and never earn the right to it, but you gave it to me anyway.

 

And you waited. 

 

I loved you in pieces and I loved you whole, or as close to it as I could get. Before you, futures were a thing for merchers and their children’s bedtime stories. They were not meant for the monsters in the dark.

 

Yet I gave you mine.

 

If you know nothing else, know this, I have loved you with every battered, broken piece of me. I loved you with my last breath, and I will love you forever after. But you have your whole life in front of you, you have purpose and goodness in your heart. Fight for it.

 

Live, Inej-- the world is yours for the taking.

 

NMNF,

 

Kaz

 

PS . When you see them, tell your Saints hello for me.

 

Inej’s eyes shone as she folded the letter and slipped it back into her cloak. Her heart was lighter.

 

And as the tears slid over her cheeks, Inej did as Nina told her to.

 

She remembered.

 

She remembered his true smile. 

 

She remembered his laugh, rare as it was. 

 

She remembered the way he looked at her when he thought she wasn’t paying attention. And maybe even when he knew she was. 

 

She remembered the first time he’d told her that he loved her, tucked into a stone alcove in Fifth Harbor, two and a half years after the auction. She’d cried and pulled him close, and told him that she’d never love anybody like she loved him. 

 

Maybe it was rash, the promises of a young girl newly reacquainted with the idea of love, but it had remained true. 

 

And she would always have these memories. 

 

I think I’m ready, Kaz, she thought. She couldn’t say it. Words could be caught up and carried away with the wind. She could only act.

 

She'd gone through his personal effects in the month after his death, had organized everything into neat boxes with Nina and brought them to the mansion's attic. It had taken everything she could give.

 

Now, she pulled his gloves from the pocket of her cloak. They looked exactly the same as the day he’d died. She’d carried them with her every day, kept them in protected places in her room and her heart.

 

But, she realized, she’d been using them to hold on. She’d thought they’d been keeping her afloat, but really she’d been dragging herself down. You couldn’t fight a rip current by swimming with it. You swam sideways until you could find the shore.

 

Gently, she placed them at the base of the stone, beside the bouquet of geraniums. 

 

Missing him was the hardest thing she ever had to do. He could only die once, but she would miss him every day of her life, and she knew that. His heart had been her home-- her refuge during the storm. They’d survived so much. She remembered what he’d said to her that night on the island when he promised to come for her, no matter what,

 

“Knives drawn, pistols blazing, because that’s what we do. We never stop fighting,”

 

And they hadn’t. 

 

But as much credit as he’d given her, he was the one who’d helped her find life after survival. Even now, she could feel his presence, watching over her.

 

A Saint in his own right.

 

He was gone, but she never truly lost him. He had carved out a place in her heart that would always be his, and one day she would see him again.

 

For now, she had Nina, Jesper, Wylan, and Hanne. She had little Cassie.

 

She pulled the chain from her neck and brought the ring to her lips. This was what they’d had and she would never lose that. 

 

But it was time to go. 

 

Inej bent and kissed the gravestone, just as she’d done that day. Pressing her head to the stone, she felt herself let go of him, just a little, just enough.

 

With a soft smile, Inej completed the prayer she’d uttered five years previous.

 

“No funerals,” she whispered.

 

She thought of her Saints and sent them a small prayer to watch over him, the first of hers in years.

 

She felt a piece of her heart heal in her chest.

 

Beneath the willow, in the shadow of a shared love, Inej turned to look at the golden dawn sky, at the future before her. 

 

And what a sky it was.