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AND IT’S ALL TO COME (FOR NOW WE’RE STILL YOUNG)

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 “I can’t think of any greater happiness than to be with you all the time, without interruption, endlessly, even though I feel that here in this world there’s no undisturbed place for our love, neither in the village nor anywhere else; and I dream of a grave, deep and narrow, where we could clasp each other in our arms as with clamps, and I would hide my face in you and you would hide your face in me, and nobody would ever see us any more.”

 ―  Franz Kafka,  Franz Kafka's The Castle

 

“You were a vision in the morning when the light came through, 

I know I’ve only known religion when I’ve lied with you”

-        Halsey, Colors

 

 

1.

The first time Kaz takes Inej to the Rietveld farm, it’s late autumn. 

The day is already quietly slipping into twilight as their cart is wobbling on a grassy country road, wheels crushing fallen leaves with each turn. Inej wraps a shawl tighter and tighter around her shoulders every few minutes; the evening breeze is not even half as vicious as in Ravka, softened by the sea, but still bites her skin even underneath her plain cotton dress. 

She’s watching the sights with eyes wide open, taking in the scenery. This is Kerch that is entirely alien to her, so different from Ketterdam it could’ve been as well a different continent altogether. It is so very quiet, so very peaceful. So very green, even on the threshold of winter, all rolling hills and fields, and small lakes scattered across them. She can see whole constellations of bright stars on the violet sky, unobscured by the thick smog. Lulled by the rolling motion of the cart, she could almost feel like a young girl again, traveling with her parents - were it not for the man sitting beside her and the coldness of her wedding ring resting between her breasts. 

Her breath forms a mist in the air when she exhales. Even the air feels fresh and crisp, sweeter than the sea breeze. Lighter. 

She’s so lost in her wonder that it almost takes her by surprise when Kaz reaches for her hand, the leather of his gloves sliding against the wool of hers.

“You’re cold?” he asks and, for a second or two, Inej allows herself to marvel at the gentle worry which rings clear in his voice, no longer masked by the feigned indifference of their youth. They have both fought and bled for this open affection, and Inej thinks she has earned to right to bask in it whenever she wants; even if it got a bit silly for her to soften whenever Kaz does, after all these years. 

“No.” she wraps her fingers around his and slowly scoots closer to him on the bench, giving him time to stop her. He doesn’t - instead, he rests his chin on the crown of her head when she leans against his shoulder. It’s been months since he last rejected her touch. Something sweet swells deep inside her with this realization. “It’s only a bit chilly.’’

“I wrote to the tenants, asked them to get the house ready. There should be a fire in the fireplace by the time we get there.” 

Absent-mindedly, he runs his thumb across her knuckles. She glances up at him; he’s staring right ahead, eyes fixed on the road and the trees and the sky, much as hers are.

“Has it changed much? The view?” she asks softly. 

It takes him a while to answer. The silence remains undisturbed for so long that her eyelids get heavy and the sky gets completely dark before she hears his voice, barely louder than the swishing of the dry grasses on the fields and cart’s wheels creaking:

“No, not at all.” 

 

***

 

Not even a pebble rolls underneath Inej’s boots when she jumps from the bench on the driveway. It is pristine; weeded and covered with fine gravel, it stretches out in front of the white, two-story farmhouse. Much like the driveway and the white fence with the gate they have just ridden through, the house looks well-taken care of – no signs of the years passed by since it was last inhabited, at least to Inej’s amateur eyes. No moss on the roof, no peeling paint. 

The lights are flickering in the windows, warm and inviting. There is smoke lazily spiraling from the chimney and someone planted purple geranium and heathers in the flowerpots framing the door. 

She has expected an abandoned house; instead, she suspects she has been granted a rare window into a past, for the house remained the same while the people who used to make it theirs passed away or changed beyond recognition. 

“I hope you did not threaten these poor people in your letter.” Inej sighs when Kaz slowly slides from the cart to the ground. “They clearly did their best.”

“I was as nice as always, darling.” Kaz shoots back, but there is something strange in his tone; when she whips her head towards him, he tries to grin, but they’ve known each other way too long for such a cheap trick to fool her.

He’s tying the reins of the horse to the post with steady, quick hands, but his bad leg trembles a bit, even on solid ground.

“It got worse, didn’t it?” she frets, flying towards the back of the cart to find his cane under a tarpaulin and basically pushes it into his hands. “Told you we should’ve made a stop along the way.”

He pays her no mind; instead, he leans heavily on the wood, eyes flickering in the dark when he stares at the house. His face tightens.

For a moment, she thinks he will just get back on the cart and drive straight back to the harbor. 

“Kaz-“

“’m fine, Inej.’’ 

He takes one step forward, then stops abruptly. She stills as a stone statue. Watches, in silence, as he takes deep breaths, counting them in her head the way she knows he does too.  One, two, three, ten It’s alright, everything’s alright, everything is fine. 

Finally, not looking at her, he murmurs:

“Walk with me?”

Inej takes his arm and slowly, they make their way towards the entrance. She’s glad he asked for this. There is something calming, something familiar about the way they fall into an easy, even rhythm on unfamiliar ground. It reminds her of strolling like that through the cobblestone streets, hand in hand, Dirtyhands and his Wraith, Ketterdam at their feet. 

Except they were not Dirtyhands and Wraith in Lij. Just Kasper and Inej Rietveld, a wealthy couple taking refuge from the disgusting weather of the capital in their countryside home. 

The name still feels alien to her; an ill-fitting glove, rouge on her cheeks, hairpins in the up-do. Its newness rubbing her raw, even after the decade of their strange relationship and then even stranger marriage between the sea and the shore. Since she stopped being his Spider, they have never spent more than three months together in one place. 

And now. The whole winter here, alone. Until the spring comes and the sun shines on what’s left of them. 

Kaz called it a vacation, a belated honeymoon. But she knows it’s a test. 

Inej is the one to reach for the handle. It turns easily in her hand and the door open without even the quietest creak.

“Saints, Kaz, how much do you pay them for the upkeep?”

To her quiet joy, the corner of his mouth twitches.

“Darling Inej, have we forgotten we are rich as kings?” 

The inside of the house smells of fresh paint, making her scrunch her nose. The floors have been recently sanded and waxed, but no amount of cleaning could entirely erase the gentle stamp of time here. She traces the darkened wooden beams supporting the ceiling with her eyes and wonders how long this house has been passed through Kaz’s family, how many generations have taken care of it before it fell into his hands. Such traditions feel strange to her, but maybe they shouldn’t – aren’t colorful quilts of her grandma and great-grandma hanging on the walls of her parent’s  vardo  after all? Mementos of the past as well, even if they were not brick-and-mortar.

“Hello?” she calls out, tentatively, but no one answers.

“Who did you expect to be here, Inej?” Kaz rasps mockingly and she thinks:   ghost s, but huffs out loud:

“The tenants, I guess? Unless you were so horrible in your letter that they preferred to make themselves scarce before we arrived.”

Kaz hangs his hat by the door and shrugs down his coat, but he still looks out of place in the warm-lit room; his angles too sharp, somehow, against the white walls and the worn-out wood on the floor. He is too pale for her liking and clenches his jaw now and then, eyes wild as they’re scanning the hallway.

Inej’s fingers itch to touch him, yet, she decides to keep her distance. They might be well past the point of such caution now, but she has learned the hard way it’s sometimes better to be safe than sorry when Kaz gets so shaky. 

Besides. She can’t blame him, given the circumstances.

She settles on the first step of the simple wooden stairs at the end of the hallway and begins to unlace her boots clumsily, fingers still stiff with the evening chill.

“So many years in Kerch and you still don’t understand our private natures,” says Kaz, still scanning the hallway. “They will probably come over tomorrow, with some food and well-wishes, but by all accounts, darling, we are a married couple on vacation.”

His eyes find hers and his whole body tenses, eyes darkening instantly. She drops the laces, stills under his gaze when the mood changes at the snap of his fingers. Like rolling clouds before a storm, sizzling anticipation travels down her spine, leaving her slightly dizzy. 

It took her a while to recognize this feeling for what it is, and years to learn how to welcome and covet it, instead of freezing with a crippling fear whenever it got a hold on her. Now, desire tastes sweet on her tongue, on the roof of her mouth.

 It tastes like a triumph.

“So they left us alone for the night.” She doesn’t know why she’s whispering. 

Vaguely, she can recall she wanted to see the house, all its nooks, and crannies, and weak spots before they went to bed. She can recall being a bit cold and really tired, and worried about Kaz. 

But all thoughts escape from her head when her husband prowls towards her as only he can; as he drops on one knee in front of her and undoes her laces himself, dark locks falling on his forehead in the process. Even if it’s just a distraction for him from more complicated feelings, she’ll gladly play along.  Delicious , this sheer idea - that she can be his escape, finally. That  desire for her  can be an easy feeling for him. Easier than grief, easier than nostalgia, easier than anger even. 

“Exactly. It would be very bad manners to disturb us tonight.” He takes off one of her boots, then another; sets them neatly on the floor, orderly as always. 

“Reasonable.”

It’s all so sudden. She should’ve asked Nina or maybe Wylan if it’s always like that when you love someone with no cages and no terror between the two of you. If this sudden hunger ever subsides and if one can ever feel completely sated. Sometimes, she thinks it must be. Sometimes, she leans more into the idea that no, maybe no other couple, no other marriage craves like them - the ones who were once starving and alone beyond belief. Starvation breeds desperation, especially in those who get to finally sit down at the feast.

She dares to take off her gloves, then to let the shawl slip from her shoulders to the floor. Her bare hands rest on Kaz’s shoulders and, when he doesn’t flinch, they slide upwards, past his collar, up the column of his neck, to finally touch his cheeks. To follow the sharp arches of his cheekbones, brush stray hairs from his brow.

 He’s so unbearably handsome that it hurts her sometimes. 

“You think so?”

“M-hm.” 

There is barely a trace of brown left in his eyes when the worn leather leaves his skin and his fingers land on her socked ankle. It’s always easier to start with touching clothes instead of skin for him; she prefers gentleness at the beginning. They meet in the middle. 

It’s a bit like walking on a high-wire, at least for her. Skill acquired through practice and hard work, repeated over and over after each fall until it feels so laughably easy. But Inej could never walk the wire quite the way she does without her sheer talent and she often thinks Kaz could’ve never, ever simply learned how to touch her quite the way he does, if he was not made for her, fashioned by the Saints themselves. It is a very soft kind of notion and Kaz would probably laugh himself hoarse if she ever shared it with him but - well. Her mind keeps on circling around it, over and over. 

Nina once told her that Ravkan Grisha has this lovely concept of  making at the heart of the world . And Inej is very close to believing in it every time Kaz Brekker plays magic tricks on her body.

Up from her ankle, underneath her skirts, on her knee; tracing the edges of her thigh garter, barely brushing her skin. Her own hands fall from his face to lace at the nape of his neck.

“Won’t you show me the house?” she teases, but the playful tint of her voice turns into a yelp when he uses his free hand to grab her by the waist and pull her closer to him. His fingers spread on the small of her back. She trembles. He grins.

“Of course. We can start the tour with the bedroom.” 

She remembers the Slat on so many rainy afternoons, both of them sitting in front of each other on the floor, Kaz’s fingers caressing the inside of her forearm. From the wrist to the bend of the elbow and back again, tracing the web of her veins. From leather on cotton to leather on skin, and, finally skin on skin. The rasp of his voice keeping her anchored until her stomach stopped doing somersaults with revulsion and dropped heavy with delight. No other man sounds like Kaz, not after Queen’s Lady played on his vocal cords with her stiff fingers. And Inej hates to admit that, even to herself, but she is silently thankful for it. The low rumble of her husband’s voice is a summer storm, and street fights, and a True Sea before a hurricane, but is as far from any lingering stains of the Menagerie as possible. 

It’s dangerous and safe, and  hers

Her lips brush the shell of his ear when she whispers:

“Persuade me it’s worth my while then, love.” 

She feels his deep inhale; feels his grip on her knee tightening for a blink of an eye before his hands slide underneath them and she’s whisked off the ground into his arms.

 High wire. Trapeze. Running on the wet, slippery slopes of Ketterdam roofs – this is how she feels whenever he holds her, exhilaration in her veins instead of blood. 

“Kaz!” She shrieks as he gets up and begins to carry her up the stairs. “You’re gonna mess up your leg, Saints, let me down!”

“Bad luck.” 

When she raises her face from the crook of his neck to glare at him, he grins at her and she’s left disarmed. 

“What bad luck? Thought you did not believe in such things.” 

“Bad luck, to not carry a bride to her marriage bed. Curse on five generations ahead, at least.” 

She pokes his chest with a huff.

“It’s not our marriage bed though.” 

It’s really not. She considers the bed on the attic of the Slat their marriage bed, even though that too is technically not true. The actual bed in which we slept the first night after they got married is in the lavish apartment of the Geldrenner. Halfway through the night she slid from the mattress on the floor and stayed there until dawn, clutching the pillow to her chest in a panic attack stronger than any other she’s been through since Kaz handed her her Indenture contract. 

She does not like to recall that night; not, when so many of those which followed was so much more pleasurable. 

“We are married, therefore, any bed in which we go to sleep is our marriage bed.”

“Kaz, I’m not Kerch but even I know this is not how it works.”

The stairs creak slightly underneath his boots when he slowly makes his way up. There are no lamps lit upstairs, only the purple twilight darkness softening all the edges and obscuring the details. But maybe Kaz remembers this house better than he admitted to her, or maybe it’s simple muscle memory, but he walks through the corridor with a sureness of someone who knows exactly where they’re going. 

Having reached the top of the stairs he turns left, steps through the threshold, and, before her eyes even get a chance to adjust to the dark, he sets her down on a mattress.

The bed is so big that it easily dominates the whole room. Undoubtedly new, given the stiffness of the springs. Inej smoothes out the wrinkles on the thick duvet and contemplates asking Kaz if it’s his parents’ bedroom.

He beats her to it.

When he sits down with his back to her to take off his shoes, he says:

“I will show you around tomorrow Inej, I promise. But let me - let me not think about it tonight.”

There is not a trace of the playful banter in his voice. Her hand freezes half-motion in the air before it resumes its journey. 

Time . Has Kaz ever asked anything else of her other than to give him time?

She did. She did and they find themselves here and now when once they could not do as much as brush hands without skeletons in their closets strangling them. 

An overwhelming tenderness floods her heart for this man in front of her, so bare without his armor. And, not for the first time, the vicious possessiveness, which she cannot force herself to feel bad about. She has once accused Kaz of worshipping greed, but jokes on her - for she’s the greedy one. Greedy beyond belief for him while he lets her flee from his arms again and again. 

Her hand rests atop his shoulder.  Mine. Mine. 

A second later, she slides the other one down his side. 

Mine.   

And then, she presses her whole body to his back; delicately wraps her arms around his waist, rests her cheek in-between his shoulder blades. She can hear his heart beating like that, can feel how he breathes. How soft are his hands when he laces his fingers with hers. 

She wants to fade into him in this quiet darkness, pull him into her until his heart is steady and his head clear. 

Only mine, this husband of mine. 

“Come to me then, love. Lay down with me.” she asks quietly. 

And he obliges. 

 

2.

 

Inej awakes groggy and unsettled, alone in a cold bed as a boat washed ashore. 

The silence tugs at her edges. No bells, no waves; no crows or seagulls; no sounds of horses or people. Just silence, undisturbed. Her well-honed instincts all go off at once, forcing her to almost jump off the mattress and look for the threat that does not exist, Sankta Alina ready to draw blood in her hand. 

The floor is cold, just like the morning chill sneaking inside through the half-opened window. Inej trembles in her thin chemise when all the remaining traces of sleepiness flee her body quickly. As her heartbeat slows down, she looks around the room, taking in the details she didn’t have a chance to pay attention to the night before – not that there is much to look at, truth to be told

There's their bed, white sheets all crumpled and messy after her abrupt departure from in-between them. A colorful rug on the floor, clearly handmade. An end-of-bed bench for storage. A washbasin on the small table near the window, with a round mirror hanging above it.

Simple, practical room, although clearly recently refurbished. And no Kaz but that, of course, she had known before she even woke up. She always knows when he leaves their bed. 

After a second of hesitation, she releases her grip on the handle of her blade and sets it down on a bench. She will have no use of it here. Still, she wonders how many nights it will take her to stop keeping it under her pillow and if it’s even possible. It’s a force of habit at this point, ingrained deep in her bones. 

With a delight, she notices that Kaz left her dressing gown laid out for her; she slips into it and welcomes its familiar scent and rich texture. Kaz has a not-quite-so-well-hidden affinity for luxury and he loves buying her outlandish gifts, too well-suited for her tastes and needs to turn them down. Knives and woolen sweaters, leather boots, silver earrings. Her goddamned ship. 

He got her this gown on her twentieth birthday if she remembers correctly. Asked her to wear it for him a year later in return, because the bastard always has at least two reasons to do everything he does. 

The soft-yellow material trails behind her when she tiptoes barefoot through the room and steps out on the corridor. There is just one more room upstairs, behind the closed door. Inej, having quite a good idea of what might be behind it, leaves it undisturbed and heads downstairs instead. 

In the morning light, she cannot help but notice how squeaky clean and immaculate everything is. She tries to imagine some middle-aged Kerch woman scrubbing the floors on her knees the day before, getting everything ready for them. If what Kaz said is true, and she supposes it is, their tenants will show up later to say their hellos and suddenly, Inej feels strangely self-conscious about it. She has had so many different roles in her life so far and has played so many different, outlandish and difficult parts, that the thought of someone knowing her just as Kaz’s wife seems somehow equal parts refreshing and perplexing. 

Saints, these people may remember Kaz from when he was a kid. There are probably more people in Lij who do than those who don’t. If she’s that worked up about the whole ordeal of meeting the neighbors, how must he feel?

And where is he?

The hallway is empty, just as the cozy parlor in the front of the house. And the kitchen is empty too; no sign of Kaz whatsoever, besides the half-full cup of long-cold coffee standing on the table. She pumps herself a glass of water and drinks it by the kitchen sink, staring out of the window. It overlooks the orchard. Judging by the size of the trees and their gnarled branches, they have been here before the farmhouse was built, or maybe the house is just far older than Inej suspected it is. 

It’s absolutely blissful. 

She cannot help but think of Kaz and his brother, cut off from this place so mercilessly when it was all they knew their whole lives. What a shock it must’ve been, after this peace and quiet and morning fog, to find themselves in the midst of all the ugly glory of Ketterdam. 

Inej knows Kaz has not fully forgiven Jordie for his childish naiveté and ambition, even after all the years gone by. That’s okay. 

She did it for him instead. 

There are eggs and milk in the icebox and she finds some fresh vegetables in the basket on the counter. Certainly enough to make a decent breakfast – if only she could find her husband to eat it with her, that’s it. And so, she resumes her search.

Root cellar underneath the flap door in the kitchen – empty.

Guest bedroom on the other side of the hallway – not a trace. 

She could search the attic, but under no circumstances Kaz could climb in there without waking her up, so, by the rules of elimination, there is only one thing left for her to do. 

She steps outside, finding herself on this strange, immaculate driveway again. Wind plays with her loose hair and the ground bites the exposed soles of her feet, yet the biggest portion of her discomfort comes from simply being outside as bare as she is now. No knives, no shoes. Hair falling down her back to her hips like a curtain. The gown twisting around her calves in this early morning.

She feels alien in her own skin.  Inej Rietveld. 

The grass is nicer to walk on than the gravel, even if it’s colder. She wiggles her toes in it for a minute or two, enjoying the feel of dew on her skin before she makes her way around the house. And maybe it’s because it’s so quiet or maybe she’s just so attuned to Kaz now, but she could swear she knew he was there before she could even see him. 

He’s standing in the middle of what looks like a small vegetable garden, fully dressed and leaning on the side of a glasshouse. He doesn’t look even slightly surprised by her appearance.

“That’s new.” He taps the glass with his cane without glancing up at her. “And there used to be flowers here, not only vegetables. Roses. ”

“It’s lovely. The whole house is.” Inej eyes the neat rows of plants; she couldn’t identify even a half of them on a gunpoint. “Since you woke up so early, I did the tour myself.” 

Kaz tenses at that, so she adds quickly:

“I didn’t open any closed doors, tho.”

That earns her a huff and a smirk, and there is something so very bittersweet about this smile that she cannot breathe for a second.

“You have opened all the doors, Inej. That’s all you’ve ever done to me.”

Her feet half-sink in the damp soil when she crosses the vegetable patch the get closer to him. And, as she once dreamed of when she was younger, he reaches towards her. Pulls her into his arms with well-practiced, hard-earned ease. 

“Be careful, Kaz.” She smiles against his chest. “This almost sounded romantic. I think you might be already losing your touch.”

She can feel him laughing before she hears it and, just like that, the strange uneasiness in her bones evaporates with a morning mist, if only for a moment. 

 

***

 

The last notch on the door frame that signifies Kaz’s height is on the level of Inej’s shoulder. She traces it with her index finger, leaning on the wood as Kaz himself rolls up his sleeves to fry eggs on a stove. As a general rule, Inej tries her best to be as far as possible from most forms of cooking besides the basic ones her Mama taught her, and they lack any suitable ingredients for Suli cuisine here.

Her eyes scan the opposite side of the door frame and the ladder of notches there; they reach higher. Jordie must have been only slighter shorter than Inej herself when they left to be eaten alive by Ketterdam. Somehow, in her imagination, he always looks eerily similar to Jesper. 

“Were your parents tall?” she hesitantly asks, flinching, when Kaz’s shoulders tense visibly under the pristine white of his shirt. 

He sighs and flips the eggs. She could bet all the kruge in their bank account that if his hands were not occupied, he would run them through his hair.

“Everyone’s tall when you’re a kid.” He says at last. “But yes, I think so. I don’t know about my mom, but my Da was so tall that he would bump his head against this lamp sometimes.”

He takes the pan off the stove and turns around to face her. Something glimmers in his coffee eyes; the kind of emotion she has never seen on him before. 

Nostalgia.

 “Funny.”Both of them take a look up at the simple gas lantern hanging above the table. “I don’t think I remembered about it until you asked.”

Inej could tell him all about the blessing of forgetting and how certain memories fade cruelly quickly with the passing of time. How the best ones, the most innocent ones, are the first to be gone with the wind. And how she found herself back in Ravka and could suddenly recall and recognize everything all at once. Everything but herself.

She thinks she might tell him tonight if he needs that. When it will get dark and cold, and they will be lying in their bed, limbs tangled, breathing even and in sync. She has learned, with years, it is easiest for Kaz to be vulnerable when the lights go out. When it feels like they are the only people in the whole world. 

He slides the eggs off the pan and she divides the vegetables from the chopping board between their plates. They have some bread too, coffee for Kaz, and tea for her. It is almost like all of the other breakfasts they shared over the years – in the Slat and Koperoom, and Van Eck mansion, and all of the other less pleasant places. Kaz reads the newspaper. Inej looks out of the window. It’s all a familiar dance, but it couldn’t be less familiar even if they tried, in this quietness and stillness of a house empty of anything but them and the unspoken ghosts whom she does not know. Even the clinging of cutlery against the plates rings too loud in Inej’s ears. 

She is almost relieved when she hears the distant crunching of gravel on the driveway, caused by at least two pairs of heavy working shoes. 

Kaz sighs heavily and folds his paper in half.

“Half-past eight and not a second too early.” His eyes briefly follow the lines of her exposed collarbones. “As much as I enjoy your state of undress, I don’t think our neighbors would appreciate it the same amount. We can, of course, also pretend we are not home, and you can lose the gown. Up to you, darling. ”

His voice is as light as possible for him, but she can see the tension rolling through his body like a tidal wave; she can clearly hear the unspoken plea in his words.  Don’t make me face them alone. 

“Business before pleasure, always. You taught me that.” She takes one last sip from her mug and stands up. “Give me just a second, I’ll be right back. And be nice.” 

Kaz scoffs something along the lines of “as always” but she flees up the stairs, two steps at a time, before he finishes talking. It doesn’t take her long to dress; years of years of the criminal lifestyle she has adopted did not gift her with an abundance of unhurried mornings. But the clothes she puts on are strange – they are not the colorful Suli fabrics of her childhood, not the fake silks, not the black leather of her wild youth, and not the sailor’s salt-hardened garb of the recent past. They are new and nice-smelling, and more feminine than Inej is used to. The skirt and petticoat feel constricting around her legs. The blouse accentuates the unfamiliar curve of her breasts, no longer flattened by the bindings. She is glad she doesn’t have time to look in the mirror. 

By the time the bell by the door rings, Inej has almost managed to finish braiding her hair. Kaz is halfway through the corridor when she appears on top of the stairs with her fingers still occupied by some rebellious strands and a ribbon.

He pauses when he sees her and that makes her stop too, half-step on her way down. His eyes slide from her head to her feet, and there is such a Kaz-specific brand of single-minded focus in this gaze that she almost laughs. 

“Stop looking at me as if I were a lock to pick, please.” She winks, and it earns her the crooked grin she came to love so much. 

“Haven’t I already picked you, Inej?” he shoots back lazily.

 Once, she would be slightly hurt by the offhanded remark like that. But once, he would not wait for her to descend down the stairs before offering her his arm. 

And once they would not make this final distance to the door together and he would not grip her hand with his bare one as he reached for the doorknob. So Inej can do nothing else but look at him and smile, as the familiar affection washes over her. She knows it can be visible on her face – in the way she smiles and in the way her eyes shine – but she does not have to hide it here and does not wish to do it either. It’s all play pretend, they two of them here; playing the perfect couple they are not, before he’s back in the Barrel and she’s back on the True Sea. But she thinks they earned this, this eyeblink of normalcy and bliss. She does not know how Kaz plans to take advantage of it, but she, for sure, is gonna milk it for all it’s worth.

When the door opens and reveals a sensible-looking, middle-aged couple whose eyes get round as kruge coins the moment they take a closer look at Kaz and herself, Inej squeezes her husband’s hand and sends them her most blinding, content grin. 

“Good morning.” She chimes and the clock in the kitchen strikes half-past eight. 

Saints-damned Kerch. 

 

***

 

“Do you think I offended them, somehow?” 

Inej fiddles with the edge of the white lace adorning the jars left on the table; golden honey and ruby jam and jade-green beans, all sitting neatly behind the glass. 

“Why would you think so?”

“They were here for the entirety of fifteen minutes.”

“Was that not long enough for you?”

Inej thinks about the caravan of her parents meeting with another one; of kids playing since dusk till dawn, of adults trading stories, and tricks, and advice on which places to visit and which to avoid. She did not expect Mr. and Mrs. Van Graaf to stay the whole day, of course, but she imagined their visit would be long enough to drink some tea at least. 

Mrs. Van Graaf – who, with her green eyes and graying blonde hair must have been a beauty in her youth – has spent the whole time silent, her eyes constantly jumping from Kaz to Inej, as if she could not comprehend the sight of them together. Mr. Van Graaf, significantly wider than his wife, has, on the contrary, spoken quite a lot, just not to Inej. Maybe he thought she does not speak Kerch or maybe there was some other, equally charming reason for that – either way, the only thing Inej could focus on was the vein on Kaz’s temple, significantly more prominent with every second of the stilted, largely one-sided conversation. 

But he remained polite the entire time, she will give him that. 

“It was enough for all of us, I think.” Her previously abandoned tea is still warm when she takes a sip. ”But I did not expect it to be so brief. I don’t think we made the best impression.” 

“Please tell me you did not suddenly start worrying about the other people’s opinions about us. Divorces are notoriously tiresome and costly here, I would rather not go through with it, love, especially after all the work this marriage has taken. And I’m afraid I will be forced to divorce you if you started to care about smalltown sensibilities. ” 

Once, she would not believe it if someone told her Kaz can sound so playful and reassuring as he does now. He leans down to gently cup her face; his hands hang an inch above her skin, a shadow of touch, before his thumbs brush her cheeks. 

“You were perfect. You always are. They can fuck off for all I care.” 

He presses a kiss to the crown of her head and she melts, melts, keeps on melting in his hands like hot wax under the flame. 

“I guess I just did not think how we must look to the people like them. Is this how you felt when we were visiting my parents?” 

Being back in Ravka never stopped being hard, but Inej has stopped wishing it would and it somehow made it easier to bear. She has taken Kaz with her, the third time she went, but the forced proximity did neither of them any good. There is no space to breathe in a Suli caravan tightly packed with people and animals, and there is no personal space in a Suli concept of familiar love either. And her parents… Saints’ bless them, for they love her and she loves them, and they’re trying so hard, but she knows Kaz is not whom they would choose for her. Even now. Even as indebted as they feel to him, or maybe  because  they feel so indebted.  

“Inej.” His palms disappear from her cheeks and reappear on her waist, pulling her flush against him. When she looks up, they are so close she could’ve counted all of the light freckles in his irises if she wanted to. “I care what your family thinks about me. You’re not seriously telling me you care about these people’s opinions in an equal measure. Why are you so anxious?” 

She rests her hands flat on his chest, above his heart. She cannot seem to fully read him here, but that is Kaz; always simultaneously the person with whom she can have the whole conversations with their eyes only and the one who keeps on surprising her, time and time again, with words and gestures she would have never expected of him. Maybe she’s equally hard for him to decipher now.

“I am anxious because I am unsure who to be here.” She answers at last. “Because I don’t know Inej Rietveld all that well. And because I don’t know how you feel about all that.” 

Their eyes meet when she raises her chin.

“How do you feel, Kaz? Being here? Because you seem-“

“Fine?” he finishes her question. There is a small smile dancing on his lips; bittersweet, like the one he gave her in the garden. “I guess I am. I did not expect to be, but I am. Maybe I am a different enough person now that… Well.” 

He lowers his head and their foreheads meet when he says, his rasp laced with a strange sort of desperation:

“It doesn’t hurt anymore, Inej. And I am pretty sure it’s supposed to hurt.” 

She delicately rubs the tip of her nose against his. This was the first thing they did, way before they worked up their courage to kiss on the lips; this brush never fails to make her feel seventeen, seventeen, and on the brink of something scary and grand. 

“I don’t think there is any sort of rulebook of how you should ever feel, Kaz. And I am glad it does not hurt you. And-“ she moves her hands from his chest to wrap her arms around his waist. Like that, they’re standing in a proper embrace in a pool of sunlight.

 She never wants to do anything else. 

“It doesn’t mean you did not love them, Kaz.” She whispers. “You have spent enough of your life mourning both them and yourself. The absence of pain doesn’t mean you’re a monster. It just means you’re at peace.”

He takes a deep, shaky inhale. She can almost hear the gears turning in his head, mulling over her words. She doesn’t think a few reassuring banalities can even come close to breaking the subconscious connection between love and pain in Kaz’s mind, but she thinks she needed to say them as much as he needed to hear them anyway. 

“Damn Suli pearls of wisdom.” He chuckles at last. His fingers spread on her lower back. He crushes her to his chest but it doesn’t hurt. She doesn’t mind, not a bit. ”How did I manage to convince such a wise woman to marry me?”

She rests her cheek on his sternum and smiles.

“I guess you just got lucky. Even a blind hen finds a grain sometimes.” 

“Fuck, not with the proverbs again. A way to ruin a moment, ‘Nej.”

Honey-gold sunlight spills on a wooden floor, dancing in facets on the glasses, on the silverware. Kaz’s fingers trace down the line of her spine and back again. He rests his chin on the top of her head.

“Do you think we even know how to do that? Be at peace?” he asks her and she thinks she hasn’t heard him sound quite so unsure ever since he proposed to her. 

Her wedding ring probably catches some of this early morning light too. Silver, like the moon, like an old scar on her finger. There is not a reason for her to wear her knives here and there is also not a reason for her ring to hang on her neck if it can be out in the open. 

They  can be out in the open. Out of the shadows and into the light. 

“Aren’t we here to find that out, Kaz?” she whispers against his shirt.

 She can feel his fingers following the weave of her braid; he reaches its end and wraps it around his wrist like a rope. The first time he did it, she fled her body in an instant. Now, only pure want coils deep inside her belly. 

“What a con, Inej.” He raises her chin with his free hand, making her face him. She climbs on her tiptoes. “What a con to pull off.”

Even in Lij, his lips taste the same – like coffee. Like home. Like all of the stolen treasures in the world. 

 

3. 

 

Before he managed to touch her with his hands, Kaz touched her with words.

There is a small wooden box snugly hidden in a Captain’s cabin of The Wraith and, inside the box, there are all the letters Kaz has written to her during her time at sea. She likes to go through them when she’s feeling particularly homesick – likes to brush her hands through their shared history and growing intimacy, basking in the silent pride when she compares the clipped, emotionless notes from many years back with their bold descendants. Kaz has learned all too well how to make her blush with his letters alone and she is somehow not surprised but that. At all. No one could be as successful as Kaz without being as passionate as they are ambitious.

Kaz approaches sex much the way he approaches everything in his life; the Dregs, the magic tricks, the heists. He paid his due diligence with her. Has learned every mole, every blemish, every scar - how to take her apart and put her back together as if she was a Schuyler. She loves him for it, for his clever fingers and clever mouth and stubborn, blinding determination. But she did not let him leave her behind either. She has mapped his body, head to toe, the way she has once mapped every nook and cranny of Ketterdam. And no one could ever accuse Wraith of being sloppy in her research. 

She keeps on wondering which of them had it easier; him, treading uncharted waters and stumbling in the dark or her, trying to reprogram her muscle memory into a dance so completely similar and yet as different as possible from the one her body and her mind has once learned all too well. 

And she has not managed to unlearn everything  - she has not erased the practiced easiness of her movements, the unwillingly well-honed technique. Once a whore, always a whore and all that jazz, although she doubts Kaz would find this sentiment even quarter as funny as she does sometimes. Sometimes she almost cherishes these kinds of thoughts. There was a time when she too could not even imagine ever joking, even in her own head, about this chapter of her life. And yet, here she is now. 

Back when she was a whore, she could’ve never envisioned having a husband and laying with him willingly. Enjoying it.

 And yet. Here she is now. Taking back all of her stolen firsts. 

 Breathless and dizzy with pleasure, sweat dripping down her back, the muscles of her thighs burning from over-exhaustion. This flurry, this wild rush of emotions rolling through her, threatening to pull her under. 

It would be so easy to slip away now. She wouldn’t even have to try. With her eyes closed, she could’ve just let go, forget whose hands were in her hair and whose cock was buried inside her. Forget whose lips were tracing her jaw, her neck, her collarbones. 

Except, Inej does not want to forget and Kaz – Kaz refuses to let her go. His clever fingers dip between her thighs and Inej is burning, Inej is flying, Inej is falling. All at once. 

“Inej,” he whispers in her ear. “Inej, my love, my treasure.” 

Greedy, greedy,  greedy , she’s so greedy for the way he says her name and for the way he holds her. If she could, she would’ve bottled it up for those endless months at sea. No other woman has ever had him the way she does. No other woman ever will, and,  Saints, forgive her , she never wants to share him with anyone else now that she knows how it feels to have him. She’s been touched by so many hands and he was been touched by so few; maybe they will tip the scale to balance somehow if they only touch each other for the rest of their lives. 

“Inej.” He moans against her skin and then picks up the pace and she forgets how to breathe. “You are - so – beautiful.” 

The soft Suli syllables of her names roll off his tongue easily, effortlessly, like liquid honey. She sinks her nails into the cords of muscles on his shoulders and he half-hisses half-grunts in response, his grip on her hips almost bruising.

“So perfect.” 

He’s so sweet in bed. So violent and so sweet, and so impossibly close. Sixteen-year-old Inej perched on his window sill would’ve grown wings and fucking flown above the Ketterdam cobblestones if she only knew what her patient devotion will bring her in time. Or maybe shattered on the same cobblestones from the sheer agony of having to wait for so long. 

But not too long. We still have so much time left, even if it’s all stolen. 

We will steal all we can, from life, from fate, and then some more. There are no better thieves than us anyway.   

She cups his face in her palms, stares into his glassy eyes. His cheeks turn pink from the exertion when he fucks her and she could swear it’s her most favorite color in the entire world.

Smiling softly, she rolls her hips  just right ; and before she can even properly enjoy the loud string of colorful Barrel curses that escape from his mouth, he immediately retaliates by rubbing the heel of his palm against the exact place where her spine curves at the small of her back. It feels like an electric shock.

She cannot stop herself. 

“Kaz.” She gasps, except it’s not really a gasp. It’s a scream, even in her own ears. He lowers his mouth to nip at her pulse point, but she can feel the smugness rolling off him almost as clearly as she feels her own pleasure. 

Inej prides herself on her silence in all circumstances. She truly thinks Kaz not-so-secretly enjoys making her loud more than any other part of sex. 

Well, if he wants to play with fire, that’s his choice. 

And so she rolls her hips again; again and again, watching as this infuriating smugness of her husband disappears the way a coin does between his fingers. She drags her nails down his back just light enough not to draw blood. Bites him just below his jawline just hard enough to bruise. 

“You’re gonna fucking kill me, love -  fuck .” 

Whatever else he wanted to say turns into a low moan when she raises on her knees and sinks back down. If Kaz Brekker wants to be the only man to make Wraith loud, good for him. She will be the only woman to make him silent. 

“Oh sorry, do you want me to stop?” she stills like a marble statue on his lap and does not know which one of them curses louder. She cannot even breathe; it hurts so good she could cry. Kaz wraps his arm around her waist and bows his back to rest his head on her chest.

When she buries her nose in his hair, she briefly wonders how she could ever live without knowing that that’s how true safety feels like. 

“You’re such a - cruel woman, Inej.” Kaz croons and then taps lightly on her skin. Two times. 

You’re good, love?

Her own fingers move before she can even think about it.

Three times.

Go on.

Finish the story. 

And so, when Kaz raises on his knees and flips her flat on the mattress, there is only fluttering deep inside her – no panic, no smell of incense. Only bone-deep giddiness. 

He hovers above her, braced on his hands and good knee, all feral grin and sharp cheekbones. The most beautiful art museum she has ever sneaked into. 

“If you don’t move, I will.” His voice is so low it almost sounds more like a rumble. He slides her hand down her body to caress her again, coaxing a whine out of her. 

“Is that – a threat?” she breathes out. “Or a promise?”

When he bends one of her legs in knee, the angle makes her see stars. She whines again, unapologetically. Let him be smug, Saints, let him strut and preen,  she doesn’t even care anymore – 

He’s laughing when he leans down to pepper kisses all over her breasts. 

“Both.” 

He circles his fingers against her burning flesh the way a musician plays an instrument or a master thief opens a vault; expertly, hitting all the right notes. Relentlessly, even when she starts to tremble beneath him. 

She might be saying his name or cursing or babbling something else, in Suli, in Ravkan, in Kerch – words, just words spilling out of her in this wild bliss of crescendo. Just words, just sounds with no meaning and no depth when Kaz smiles at her, watching her with this soft expression of his face that is wholly and entirely hers. 

But once the world stops spinning in front of her eyes, there are only a few words she still can utter, the ones she needs to utter, or else she surely dies. 

“I love you.” She reaches for his hand. When their fingers lace, she presses her lips to his knuckles, the cold metal of his wedding band biting her flesh. 

She feels weightless as a bird, her bones hollow and her heart feather-light. Right now, she could’ve walked the spider’s thread the way she can walk the wire. She could’ve walked the spider’s thread stretched between the stars on the sky as long as Kaz would keep looking at her like that. 

“I love you.” He brushes loose hairs from her face and tucks them behind her ear. He’s still smiling, without a trace of bitterness this time. 

For years, imagining his face lit up like this was beyond her wildest dreams. Once she has seen it, she can never get enough. 

”My treasure,  moya zlota, moya Sankta,  my Inej.” 

Inej, ever pious, should think it sacrilegious for her husband to call her a Saint.

Inej, ever greedy, ever in love, eternally fifteen and just having had all of her deepest, most desperate wishes granted - Inej Rietveld just wraps her trembling legs around his waist and pulls him deeper into her, kissing these golden, wicked words off his lips. 

 

4.

He shows her the small orchard first; leads her in-between trees, their fingers loosely entwined. They pass the empty henhouse and the barn, and the pond with the willows bending above its still surface. 

Inej jumps from the ground to walk on the fence around one of the pastures, just for the fun of it. The worn-out wood creaks underneath her boots, white paint flaking on dark leather. When she glances down at Kaz, his eyes are already on her, equally entranced and distracted, as if he couldn’t really stay in this one moment. 

She thinks of Kaz climbing the roofs along with her; of his tragic fall and his broken leg, of the nets he wanted to spread below her. Kaz has never told her how he knows so well what the job of a Spider entails, but then, he never had to. 

It’s very easy to imagine him perched on the same fence: small, quick, innocent. 

The greenery of the pasture seems to stretch out to infinity and beyond underneath the rolling mass of fluffy white clouds. It’s so much grander than she thought it would be, based on how he used to – briefly and rarely – mention the farm. It’s of course nowhere close to the  jurda  fields belonging to Colm Fahey, but Kerch is also not a Zemeni frontier. With a startle, Inej realizes that the Rietvelds might not have been rich, especially for Ketterdam standards, but they were not poor either. Especially in Lij. 

In another, kinder world, Kaz would have probably met Jesper in the university halls. Someone as whip-smart as him and with enough funds could get in without any problems. 

And in that particular world, as much as she wants to believe otherwise, Inej cannot think of a place in which their respective paths would ever intersect. 

“Kaz, what did your family actually grow here?” she asks, her curiosity getting the best of her. The pasture is overgrown and empty of any animals besides flies and buzzing honeybees but it is also big enough that it surely had some important purpose once. “Or did you just keep animals?”

Kaz leans against the fence and she perches on the thin wooden plank near his shoulder. He’s watching the sky. She’s watching him. 

“We had cows, a few horses. Some goats. Everyone here does or at least used to. But it was definitely not the main attraction. The crops mattered, first and foremost. As far as I know, Van Graafs still maintain them and they would be stupid beyond comprehension if they didn’t.” 

When he turns his head towards her, some sort of wicked excitement sparks in his eyes.

“Do you want to see? I think you can if you stand up and look to the right.” 

She has to raise to her tiptoes, of course, and it is still not as easy to spot as he made it sound but –

“Kaz” she breathes out. “What is that?”

In the warm autumn sun, what stretches right next to the pasture looks like a sea of gold. She has not seen such an intense yellow anywhere else besides on the most expensive silk of her people and on the gowns of the wealthiest Mercher ladies.

“Golden maiden.” She can hear the grin in Kaz’s voice. “Goldenrod. If you think about textiles, you are pretty damn close cause we would sell the flowers for the dye. It’s a weed, to be honest, but it’s the only plant that still blooms so late in the year, so it’s the only one you can still see. The tulips are just bulbs in the soil in autumn, and I think we narrowly missed sunflowers and lavender.”

Goldenrod. Tulips. Sunflowers and lavender.  Flowers. 

Inej has a sudden urge to cry and laugh at the same time. Rietvelds were flower-growers.  Kaz was born on a Saints-damned  flower farm.  How wonderful, how heartbreaking, how perfect.

“Can we get a bit closer?” she asks, not tearing her eyes away from the sight. When the breeze makes the stalks swish, the field looks even more like the True Sea. 

Kaz shrugs and brushes some of the paint flakes from the shoulders of his coat; he’s clenching his jaw again, so hard she feels the urge to cup his face in her hands and massage the stubborn muscles until they loosen.

“Sure. Lead the way.” 

She almost flies off the fence. 

The flowers tickle her bare hands, leaving a trail of faint yellow streaks across her skin when she brushes the stalks. She cannot tear her eyes away from it, from this endless gold. It is so beautiful, feels like such a treasure. Without thinking about it, she reaches behind, wordlessly asking Kaz to take her hand as she steps deeper into the field. She doesn’t turn around. Just stands still for a heartbeat or two, face turned towards the sun and wind playing with the loose wisps of hair around her face, waiting for him to follow her.

His fingers slide against hers and she smiles. 

And she gently pulls him behind her, goldenrod swallowing the both of them whole like a pool of liquid sunshine, no trace of shadows. 

 

***

 

Kaz tells her, on their way home, how they used to dry petals in the sand and make wreaths out of them, threading flower heads on springs and hanging them on the beams on the ceiling. How the sun used to reflect off the glass of greenhouses in the summer. How the fresh-cut flowers were sold to traders and then sailed on the barges to Ketterdam or country houses of the rich in the coast. How the only true memory of his mother he has left is reaching out for her hand in the middle of the night and the smell of lavender on her skin. He tells her more about his childhood on this one-hour walk through the empty fields in the countryside than he has told her in all the years they’ve known each other combined. His eyes keep on coming back to the small stalk of goldenrod she tucked behind her ear as if he wanted to burn her sight in his mind. 

He doesn’t release her hand then they reach the farmhouse. He opens the door and leads her inside, then up the stairs and in front of the second bedroom. His fingers hover above the handle, trembling, for a few seconds, before he lowers his hand with a sigh. 

She doesn’t say anything, doesn’t offer to help. This is the space he must invite her into himself if he truly wants her in it. 

“You know, I really do think that he would love you.” Kaz rasps, at last, raising his hand again. He rests it so lightly on the handle that it doesn’t lower even in the slightest. “But maybe it’s because he was an easy person to love and so are you.”

Inej leans against Kaz’s shoulder slightly; she can feel one corner of her lips rising. Only Kaz could ever say she’s an easy person to love. She certainly doesn’t feel like it’s true. But she also knows, better than anyone else perhaps, how different can be the image one sees in the mirror from the one they see reflected in the eyes of their loved ones. 

“I think I would love him because he loved you so much. I would not need any other reason,” she says at least. 

I don’t need any reason other than he was your brother and you loved him, love. 

The handle lowers and the door opens with the wailing creak of the hinges long-unused. 

It is perhaps the only truly dusty room in the house; Inej can see dust particles spinning in the air when the weak light of the afternoon sun spills through the dirty window. There is nothing inside but two bed frames with yellowed mattresses and all this dust. No ghosts, no traces of Kaz or his brother. No terrors, no monsters. 

Just a small, abandoned bedroom.

Neither of them steps inside. They stay on the threshold in silence.

“I thought he’s dead,” Kaz says at last and, when Inej whips her head up to look at him, words get stuck in her throat, choking her up.

A solitary tear rolls down his cheek slowly, leaving a silvery trail on his skin. Up until now, she has never seen Kaz cry; she didn’t think he still knows how. 

“Who’s dead?” she asks, her voice shaking like a leaf on a wind. 

“Kaz Rietveld. I really thought he died with Jordie, stayed on the Reaper’s Badge.” To her astonishment, Kaz laughs; some more moisture spills from his eyes. “But he’s not dead. I’m – I’m not dead.”

Inej bites on her lip. She doesn’t know if she wants to dance or burst into tears or maybe just pray in thanks that Saints have granted her enough patience to stay with this man long enough to see him the way she sees him now. Flawless and whole, all heart. 

She crosses the threshold and turns her back to the dusty beds. Takes Kaz’s face in her hands delicately, cupping his jaw to avoid touching wet skin.

She loves them all, she thinks. Fell in love with them all; with Kaz Rietveld and Kaz Brekker, and Dirtyhands. She loves his cunning, his generosity, his wit, and his cruelty in an equal measure, no matter how many times she wished she didn’t. 

“How could he be dead?” If she had Marya Hendriks’ talent, she would’ve painted Kaz looking down at her the way he does now and carried it with her forever and a day more. Taken it to the grave with her. “How could he be dead if I married him?”

It takes only a slight tilt of Kaz's head for his lips to touch her palm, press a kiss to her wedding band.

“I thought I’d come here and feel that everything is lost, all that I used to have.” Kaz stares at her, wide-eyed; there is an edge in his voice she has never heard before, and it sounds a lot like wonder. “But it doesn’t feel lost just – just a bit dusty. All the things I used to want as a kid. None of that feels lost.”

And then he smiles at her through tears – a wide, joyous grin that makes him look like an entirely different person peaking underneath the face she thought she knew so well – and steps around her. With a thump of his cane on the squeaking floors, he crosses the room.

And, dirtying the cuffs of his shirt in the process, he opens the window wide. 

At night, she falls asleep with her fingers brushing Kaz’s and she dreams of a sea of purple tulips, and two small boys laughing in a rainstorm of petals as the Suli violins she remembers so well from her own childhood are trembling in the spring air. 

She wakes up smiling. No alarm bells, no panic. 

 

5.

A week passes by before the mailman knocks on their door.

Besides a bunch of encrypted envoys from Dregs’ leutenants, he leaves them a thick envelope from some inconspicuous tavern in one of the smaller cities in Kerch. It turns out to be a package consisting of two pages of Jesper’s chicken scrawl and a second envelope coming all the way from the Fjerdan court. 

Kaz leaves her alone with the latter, for which Inej is stupidly, indescribably thankful. Letters from Nina are one of the rare things that always drive her to tears and she doesn’t want to cry near Kaz, doesn’t want to talk about it or answer any questions. She is fine on her own, with her grief and guilt, and all of the other unexplainable feelings that awake in her heart whenever she thinks of Nina. 

Inej would still lay down her life for her with no hesitation, no questions asked, no regrets. But Nina she once knew is dead. She now bears a different name and a different face, and they have not seen each other for almost a decade. Her letters are always a reminder of that – of how much she has changed since they were two scared girls, singing dirty shanties in the belly of a ship to silence their fears. Inej cannot blame Nina for changing and surviving. She’s proud of her. But she also cannot help but mourn her friend and what life she might have lead was it not for one riffle in hands of one wrong man in the wrong place, at the wrong time. The wide-grinned Grisha forever seventeen, forever young and in love, perfectly preserved in Inej’s heart, doesn’t exist beyond it, just like her lost love. 

So the tears start to roll down Inej’s cheeks before she even reads the opening line and then it just goes like a landslide; no matter how hard she tries, she cannot stop it.

How I long to see your face again, Inej. It’s been way too long, hasn’t it? The older I am, the more horrified I am of our past shenanigans, but Saints damn me if I would not give up all the riches of Fjerdan coffers to be in the Ketterdam with you all again. What a pathetic, glorious bunch we were. 

 When Kaz comes back an hour later, he finds her curled on the chair, her chin on her knees and her face in her hands. 

“Is she okay?” he asks tentatively and, when she nods, the wrinkle between his brows smoothes out a bit. Without another word, he walks to the cupboard and produces a tumbler of amber Kaelish whiskey and two glasses, then pours a generous three fingers into one of them and sets it on the table in front of her.

She watches him with puffy eyes; watches how he pours himself visibly less alcohol, how he pulls out a chair next to hers and sets his cane against the table. 

She watches him and he watches her and they nurse their drinks in a comfortable, easy silence for half an hour before Kaz, wordlessly, leans closer to her and presses a kiss against her brow.

“Leave it, Inej. It’s cold here. There’s a fire in a fireplace in the parlor.” He rasps and she nearly starts crying again. 

Oh, how in love with him she was back when they were kids. What wonders did this love do for both of them. Saints,  what a blessing.  And Nina was right – they were glorious indeed, even with these heavy weights around their necks. But Inej thinks they are even more glorious now. Lighter. Gentler. 

When he offers her his hand, she takes it. 

 

***

 

Autumn passes through the Rietveld farm like a river current sliding against pebbles, relentlessly smoothing their rough edges. 

Kaz smokes his single cigar at night as she oils up her hair. He makes her hutspot; she bakes him ginger cookies. They walk across empty fields for hours upon hours, spooking birds digging in the soil.

People talk because of course they do. For once, Inej doesn't even try to listen and it feels fucking heavenly. She does shopping at the local market and, after a while, shopkeepers and shoppers stop staring at her skin and start tipping their hats at her in greetings. It doesn’t take long after that for Mrs. Van Graaf to shyly knock on her door and offer to teach her how to knit hats and sweaters for the winter – the offer, which Inej cheerfully accepts. She plans to knit Jesper an outlandish, canary yellow scarf and maybe something a bit more sensible for Wylan's lovely carrot curls. 

There is a small pack of stray cats that Kaz feeds with bacon skins and ham fat in the early hours of the dawn. He’s apparently convinced she doesn’t know about it, which makes her lose her wits. Silly man – he was the one who made her into a vicious collector of secrets after all, and no secrets are more precious for her than his.

One evening, she comes home from the market, and Kaz is sitting in an armchair and petting a soot-black kitten on his lap. He offers no explanation whatsoever and Inej does not ask; she kisses the cat’s pink nose and coos at his little ears and paws. 

Time goes by, washing over them. 

It’s not perfectly peaceful. The envoys from Ketterdam keep on coming. There are bad days and good days for both of them, and sometimes one of them takes their pillow and sleeps in the parlor. But it still might be the most peaceful Inej has ever been in her entire life. 

She misses the True Sea and her crew viciously, in a way that almost hurts her in a physical way – the sharp ache underneath her sternum, beating like a second heart. But she is well versed in the art of managing the even worst kinds of longing now. She misses her parents, constantly. She misses Nina. She misses Kaz when she is at sea and she misses sea when she is with Kaz. For years and years and years. Longing has found its home deep in her bones by now. 

The guilt is worse than longing; almost unbearable, because it is new. She’s not doing what she vowed to devote her life to do and she cannot help but imagine all those who still wait for her, pray for her, await her sails on the horizon, and never find them. But comfort is laughably easy to get used to, easier than she thought possible. One morning, sitting with Kaz and drinking tea with raspberry jam for almost two hours with no interruptions, she realizes it  all  became easy. What they have, what they are. After so much time spent wishing and struggling for more, she considers being with Kaz the easiest thing in the entire world. And the sheer happiness of this realization is powerful enough to drown longing and overpower guilt. 

Maybe – just maybe – there can be another Wraith sailing the True Sea. And she can just be Inej Rietveld just a bit longer, get to know her just a bit better. And maybe Ketterdam can be free of Dirtyhands again, so her husband could always wake her up with a kiss and look younger and younger with every passing day.

Inej wants more than this winter. She wants to see tulips blooming in spring. She wants to see Kaz underneath a cherry blossom tree. She wants summers and laughter and long days stretched into years with her husband. 

And maybe, just maybe – she wants to open the second bedroom again. Paint it yellow, paint it in tulips and geranium and goldenrods, put a cradle there and a mobile above it. It is a foolish dream, dangerous and irresponsible, but she carries it in her heart and lets it warm her insides nevertheless. It is just so irresistibly pretty. Prettier than righteous anger that kept her aflame for the last few years. And not so hard to imagine, when she curls beside Kaz on the sofa and he reads to her, and winter snuggles their house in a blanket of the first snow. 

She wants to see Kaz’s eyes staring at her from their baby’s face. 

And, for the very first time since they began this strange dance of theirs, for the very first time ever since she offered to help him back when she was clawless and trapped – she truly believes she can have it. 

They can have it.

Somehow. Someday. They will find a way to pull this off. The winter will pass and they will both blow dust from their childhood dreams and wish for them again. 

After all, there is nothing they can’t have now if they truly set their hearts to it. That Inej believes more than anything else.