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take my hand

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Through the storm, through the night

Lead me on to the light

Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.

- Take My Hand, Precious Lord, Elvis Presley


 

She wakes with a start from yet another nightmare, her brow soaked with sweat and her limbs still trembling with fear. She feels as though Death is hovering at her shoulder. It has been over a year - almost two, really - since Inej was dragged from the hellish depths of the Menagerie, and still she cannot shake the memories - hands sliding against her skin, unwanted, whispered words in her ear, making her sick to her stomach.

Tossing the covers off, she sits up and looks around her. Moonlight seeps in through the windows, falling on the windowsill where she once spent so many lazy afternoons next to Kaz Brekker’s now-abandoned desk. These days, he works in the office which used to belong to Per Haskell, and when Inej returns from her adventures, he sleeps there, too.

It has been nearly six months since the false plague outbreak swept Ketterdam. Since then, Inej has been out to sea and back twice, staying away for nearly three months each journey before finally returning to this dark, unruly, beautiful city which her heart cannot seem to let go of.

Thought maybe it isn’t just the city she can’t let go of. Maybe it’s the people, too.

It is cold out as her bare feet pad against the floorboards. On the third floor landing she sees a few drunken Dregs swaying to the tune of an old sailor’s shanty, and she thinks longingly of her old room.

But of course, Kaz had to give it to another, more useful member of the gang once it became clear that she wasn’t always going to be around anymore. The Slat has no room for sentiment.

She continues down the stairs.

His office door is closed but not locked, and she doesn’t bother to knock as she slips in. Inej still dreams of the day when she will finally catch Kaz unawares, though she knows her chances are slim. Sitting behind his desk, wide awake despite the late hour is the young man himself, scribbling away at the papers piled in front of him.

“I think this stack of paper might be almost as tall as me,” she says, prodding at one of his many mountains as she seats herself in the armchair on the other side of his desk, in front of the hearth.

He doesn’t stir, though he does quip, “That wouldn’t be very impressive.”

Inej takes a moment to feel vaguely offended. “You should be sleeping,” she says finally once the silence has grown comfortable between them, her voice a barely-there echo in the warmth of the room.

Now he does look up, bitter coffee eyes staring her down. “As should you,” Kaz responds.

She shrugs. “I’m better suited to moving, not sleeping.”

“And I’m not?”

“You’re practically sleeping right now.”

Something like a smile touches his lips, and she feels full inside, as though her heart is set to burst. Making Kaz Brekker smile feels like a lifetime accomplishment in and of itself. “For all of our sakes,” he says, “I hope not.”

Once again, the silence takes over. A fire crackles in the hearth, casting a warm glow on Inej as she lounges in her chair, feet tucked up beneath her. Sleep reaches for her, but she refuses to give in to it. She’s too afraid of the things that wait for her in the dark, the hands and the teeth and the whispers that claw at her insides whenever she descends into dreaming.

But she must lose the battle against her drowsiness at some point, because when she next looks up, Kaz is standing over her, a blanket tangled in his hands. She starts before she realizes that it’s only him, and then she prays to every Saint she knows that he won’t notice.

And still, he does.

“Inej,” he says quietly, “what are you so afraid of?”

Tante Heleen. Boys in the street who look at me. Men I used to know.

“You’re still having nightmares,” Kaz surmises once it becomes clear she won't respond, seating himself with his back against the base of her armchair, head thrown back against the cushion. “Aren’t you?”

A lock of his dark hair curls against his forehead and she longs to push it away. This dance between them, the one they’re so good at, is long and beautiful, yes, but oh, it is tiring.

She brushes his hair back before she can think better of it, and she can’t tell if his shudder is from revulsion or contentment, but his hands are bare. They have been for months. And more than anything, she wants to believe that he’s getting better, growing out of old fears even where she still struggles to do the same.

“Maybe I am,” she answers him at last. “Are you?”

He sighs. “Yes.”

Inej lets her fingers trace patterns onto his shoulder, slow and soft. This much, they can handle. “I don’t know how to make them stop,” she admits.

Kaz’s fingers close around hers, stilling her restless movements, and this touch feels like a promise. Every touch does. A promise of healing. Of a future. “Sometimes,” he says, “talking is supposed to help.”

Her pulse thrums beneath her skin, and she wonders if he can hear it, feel it beneath his wandering fingertips as they brush against her hand, her wrist, her fingers. “Are you saying you would listen?”

The silence is strung out, too long for her comfort as his gentle hands continue their easy trails along her palm. She wants him to say something, anything. She wants him to… She wants him. And the wanting hurts, so strong is it most days.

“I would,” he says finally. “I would and I will, Inej.”

She likes it when he makes her promises. Because Kaz Brekker is nothing if not a man of his word.

And now, she looks for hers, for the ones she wants to say. “Where to begin?” she murmurs.

A different soul, Jesper, say, would offer a joke or a quip or a million lighthearted rays of sunshine to assuage her fears. But Kaz knows the trails of sorrow that run parallel to hers, and he offers nothing but his mind and his heart in everything he does. He says, “Begin with what you fear the most.”

She has to think about it. “The powerlessness,” she breathes, eyes shut tight as she wills away memories of nights spent bleeding and crying and screaming, unable to change a single thing. “I never want… I never want to go back to that.”

“And you won’t,” he assures her. “You are the Wraith, Inej. Men across Ketterdam hear your name and tremble. They wouldn’t dare -”

Her throat feels choked with sorrow. “Kaz,” she whispers, “in the dead of night I’m not the Wraith. When my back is turned, I’m not the Wraith. I’m just another mark, easy pickings -”

Gently, he tugs at her hand until she slips to the ground next to him so that they are shoulder to shoulder, their hands still intertwined. “You’re not,” he says, “easy pickings, nor are you just another mark. Take it from someone who was.”

His shoulders roll with remembered pain, tremble with that which lingers, but he only grips her hand harder. “You were just two kids,” Inej says. She doesn’t know what else to say; he will always despise the boy he was, she fears. “There’s no shame in what happened to you.”

“Isn’t there?” His voice is as bitter as his eyes, which look empty as he turns to face her. Their breaths mingle, their noses just inches away.

She closes her eyes. “There is nothing shameful about you, Kaz Brekker,” Inej says softly. She cups his face in her hand, and he trembles at her touch. “You know I’m the only person who would dare tell you if there were.”

He nods, just barely. “Inej,” he says, “I wish I could… I’m sorry I can’t hold you.” She opens her eyes to see that he has looked away, cheeks reddened.

She holds her hand out to him. “Feel my pulse,” she says, and he does, hands careful along her wrist, as if she is something to be cherished, kept safe.

“It’s pounding,” Kaz murmurs.

“That’s the fear. That’s my body responding in the only way it’s ever known how to physical touch. And I know it’s a little different for you, Kaz, but there’s… We can get better.”

“In what amount of time?” he asks. “At what cost?”

Inej curls her fingers around his and leans into him. She once told him she wanted him without armor, but she’s still holding onto her own, too. And she can’t ask something of him that she isn’t willing to give as well. And so she says, “As long as it takes.” She breathes deep. “Until we can hold each other for longer than a few stolen moments.” She swallows. “Until we aren’t afraid anymore.”

He closes his eyes, dark eyelashes sweeping pale cheekbones. “I’d like that,” Kaz says quietly.

She sighs, the fear receding slowly from her mind, and then she pulls back, leaving just those few pieces of space which they still need between them. “I’d like it if you slept more often,” she tells him with the beginnings of a smile creeping up her lips. “You look rather fetching without those dark circles hanging about beneath your eyes.”

Kaz scowls and she laughs, long and bright, letting the warmth of the moment wash over her. Her heart feels full with a promise of tomorrow, and of the day after that, too.

As long as it takes.

 


 

 

He thought that when she left, he would finally be able to concentrate. But instead he finds himself thinking of her all the time, even when doing the most mundane things. He thinks of Inej when he keeps the books, remembering those afternoons they used to spend together as she fed the crows and laughed to her heart’s content and he basked in the glow of her happiness.

He thinks of her when he gets in a tussle, remembers the number of times she counseled him to have mercy. He thinks of her when he walks past the Menagerie, and reminds himself that he cannot burn it down until she is around to see.

And when she does come back, it is at the most unexpected times. A year after their Ice Court heist, he treks up the stairs of the Slat early one morning, on the hunt for a ledger from a few years back. His leg is not so bad today, and he makes good time. The sun is just barely breaking the horizon as he reaches the fourth floor.

Kaz pauses when he sees Inej, curled up and asleep in his bed. She sent word a few weeks ago that she was on her way back, but he hadn't thought she would be here so soon. Her hair is loose across the pillow, her posture content and at peace, and his heart thrums with want, with need. He thinks of the number of times he’s longed to have her like this.

“You’re not sleeping,” she says groggily, and he clears his thoughts, drawing his eyes back to hers. She has been watching him this whole time, he realizes. “I thought I told you to sleep more.”

He shrugs, trying not to feel like a disobedient child as he drags a chair to the edge of the bed and props his feet up against the frame. “I had a few numbers I needed to log.”

“At three in the morning?”

“The devil never sleeps, and so neither should I.”

She smiles sleepily. “Oh, Saints,” she says, tossing a careless arm across her face, “did I just hear Kaz Brekker admit that he and the devil are not one and the same?”

Against his best wishes, he finds himself smiling back. “Don’t go announcing it to the whole world,” he chides. “I have a reputation to uphold.” His hands itch to touch her, to feel the remnants of last night’s rain in her hair, and so gingerly he cards his fingers through her inky strands, letting their softness calm him.

Inej drags her fingers down her cheek in fatigue, closes her eyes. “I missed you.”

He wraps a strand of her hair around his finger. “I missed you, too, Wraith. I hear you’re wreaking havoc on the seas.”

“Damn straight,” she answers, and he hears the pride in her voice, strong and fulfilled. He wonders what she sees in him, that she would even let him have just a moment of her time or an ounce of her goodness.

“I’ve been practicing,” he says before he can think twice about it. “Without… Without my gloves. Dealing hands, passing papers. Small things.”

Inej smiles up at him and takes his free hand. The waters rise to his ankles as they always do, and then they recede, his stomach settling once again as his heart hums Inej, Inej, Inej. “Are you busy today?” she asks. “Have you another heist planned?”

“We’ve got some information coming in about some things the Black Tips have been up to recently, picking trouble in Fifth Harbor again, and I’ll be having to investigate that further -”

“But right now?”

He glances out the window at the rosy sunrise. “I suppose I could spare a minute. What do you need me for?”

Inej tugs at his hand. “My nightmares are getting better,” she says. He nods, and his heart feels light, looking at how far she has come from the bruised and broken girl he pulled from the Menagerie all those years ago. He watches her pat the empty space next to her on the bed, and his hands still in her hair. “Just for a few hours,” she says, “I want to sleep a bit longer.”

“With me - ?”

“With you.”

He leaves his jacket and tie on the chair, slipping open his top button and leaning his cane against the frame of the bed before settling on top of the covers next to her. Her hand fumbles at his until they are locked together, their breaths echoing in tandem and their hearts beating in time. Kaz looks over to find her already looking at him.

“Did you have anything else in mind?” he asks, and she laughs.

“Did you?”

He brings his hand up to cup her cheek, drawing his thumb across her cheekbone as the waters hover at the edge of his vision, her skin warm and brown beneath his fingertips, her lips parted in waiting. In wanting. And oh, he wants, as well. How he wants. How he fears. “Maybe,” he says, voice heavy with need and with trembling, “tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow sounds good,” she says quietly.

And so they sleep next to each other, hands and hearts all tangled together, tomorrow ringing in his ears, following him into his dreams. And he doesn’t dream of Jordie this morning as the sun rises gold and rose around them.

Instead, he dreams of a life spent sharpening knives and sharing secrets. He dreams of learning to be better.

He closes his eyes, and he dreams of Inej.