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show me where my armor ends (show me where my skin begins)

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The first time he holds her in his arms after her first few months on sea his hold is stiff and uncomfortable and it barely lasts a second before he has to break away, feeling nauseated enough to throw up.

Thoughts of water and bodies flood his mind unbidden and relentless, unstoppable and unbearable and her eyes are wide and surprised and he has to restrain himself rather violently from fleeing his own office.

But later that night, when he is surrounded by the safety of his room, in his bed, another thought enters his mind, maybe even more dangerous than the thought of bodies, the thought of almost drowning. He remembers that her skin had been warm from the sun, her golden skin darker than the last time he had seen her. Her hair had been shorter too and if possible she had become even more beautiful. But then again time makes the mind grow fonder and there is no denying that he has missed her. As his spy. Roeder is simply not as good as the Wraith. That’s all.

And yet when he had seen Jesper and Wylan surge forward and throw their arms around her lithe frame, had seen her return their hugs with a gleeful, free laugh he had wanted to do the very same. Had wanted to be just as unrestrained and comfortable with her and he loathed himself for wanting, always wanting but never taking even though he knew she was more than willing to give and he wanted to have. But he simply couldn’t. Not in front of people and maybe not at all. So he had simply smiled crookedly at her before turning around and heading back to his office, where she had found him later.

Inej had climbed gracefully through the window he had left open and strolled towards him, dark eyes fixed on his face, features serene and beautiful as if she was trying to figure out his next move.

The longing and yearning had become unbearable then and he had stood abruptly, knocking the chair over in his haste and while it had thumped to the floor she had frozen mid-step, staring him as he had moved forward, moving slowly but determined, limping until he was right in front of her and then taking another step, arms encircling her awkwardly.

A second. He had managed to hold her in his arms for a second before the feeling of skin on skin had overwhelmed him and he had to break away.

Now, hours later, his thoughts are fixed on bodies again, but surprisingly not unpleasantly so. She had been soft and warm in his arms, strong and fragile at the same time. The only skin that had touched skin had been a sliver of bare flesh at his collar that had been exposed due to the heat of the day and her forehead had touched it only because they had been so close. And now, alone in the dark, he wants more, wishes he could have held her against him longer, wishes for himself to be stronger, wants to feel her skin against his again just to see if the nausea would recede if he held her longer, if he would be able to think of her and only her like he does now instead of thinking of death and decay.

Inej would be gone in the morning, she would leave with her crew and sail the seas again but she would return, she had promised she would and she came back the last time, so Kaz decides he would be prepared the next time.

~~~~~~

Preparing for Inej’s return, Kaz discovers, has a lot to do with dealing with desire.

It’s not like he has ever been completely unaffected by it. He had felt it before, with Imogen, with one or two or three other pretty girls, had felt that tug, that need for something more before; after all he was merely a man.

And yet desire paired with Inej; that is a feeling he is coming to loathe as much as he learns to love it over time. At first it is more loathing than anything else because the want hits at the most unfortunate times, during meetings or on jobs when he is suddenly reminded of her and then he thinks about the slope of her neck, the way her lips look when they are pulled into a smile and he wants. He sometimes wants so much that his attention shifts a little and while he still manages to be cold, cruel Dirtyhands on the outside, on the inside he craves for the touch of a woman who is oceans away, for something he does not deserve yet, cannot handle yet.

The simplicity of his task is painfully clear, yet it seems nearly impossible to rid himself of a fear, a habit that has stuck with him for so long so he starts slowly, starts with reliving the few memories of skin on skin contact he has had since Jordies’s death over and over again.

He makes himself relive the unpleasant ones first because those are harder to deal with, because they had been failures, had marked the times in his life he has let himself down. He had become Dirtyhands because of them, had punished himself for his failures more than Haskell ever did. But he had needed to become as ruthless as he is now to reach his goals, to throw over Pekka Rollins and to take over the Dregs. That doesn’t mean that he wants to stay like this though. Dirtyhands would never let the Wraith come close to him, would never show weakness in front of her; Kaz however is a different story.

So when, after a few weeks he manages to think about Gorka’s hairy arms and Beni’s body braced against his and being stuck in that wagon with the others without getting unbearably sick and without shaking he lets himself remember the feeling of Inej’s hand on his face before they managed to do the impossible, the way her skin had been warm and soft under his touch when he had bandaged her, remembers her patience, her racing pulse right beneath his lips, her hand in his, a little damp from sweat, the way he had held her when her knees had given out when she saw her parents.

At first his thoughts are still laced with fear and more often than not he has to remind himself that he is thinking about the woman that he so desperately wants by his side and not about the way Jordie’s body had held him afloat.

It’s hard, harder than he expected it to be but he’s not giving up, not this time. He is older now, he has the Dregs, is a barrel lord, has everything he wants except her and nobody stops Kaz Brekker from getting what he wants, especially not himself, so he keeps thinking about these moments until his thoughts are filled with Inej, Inej, Inej.

It takes him another few weeks before his thoughts turn into something more than just memory and it’s as much a step forward as it is a step back because he finds himself wanting to touch her more, wanting her and he has never been so scared before.

It is especially scary when his body responds in different ways than it has before. Until now fear and the unwillingness to touch and let himself be touched has kept him from truly desiring someone and so when he starts to want more than just Inej’s hands and maybe even lips it scares the hell out of him. Of course he has been hard before, he had gone through puberty and his fair share of morning wood he just never has done anything about it because usually his mind is so in control of everything that he never had to lay hand on himself before.

But now that his thoughts no longer twist his insides out with disgust and fear but make them twist with want and lust and giddiness instead he stays hard and he knows it’s perfectly normal, it’s his body’s natural response to those feelings he is developing – but he still is reluctant about doing something about it, usually forcing his mind to empty and quiet and his body to go to sleep.

He knows that he can’t really keep going on like this, that his refusal to do something about it is actually not necessarily a step back but a standstill and yet the thought of getting himself off thinking about Inej – and even the thought of getting himself off alone – is as frightening as touching her in the first place.

~~~~~~

When The Wraith docks at the harbor for the second time after she has been gone for two months, already making herself one hell of a reputation, Kaz is still at his personal standstill and he doesn’t really know how to move on from it, so when word comes about Inej’s arrival he stays in, not sure how he would handle being around her. He hopes that him not showing at the docks doesn’t look like a rejection, that it doesn’t make her think he doesn’t want to be with her anymore but the fear coiling in his stomach is so great, he feels unable to do anything, really.

It’s not fear of how she will react or anything like that; it is a fear very much unlike anything he has ever felt before. He is scared that his own body might betray him, that he will reach out and take her in his arms and hold her close and possibly even kiss her because when she would smile at him that in that special way there is nothing he wants to do more than touch her lips with his but he is still not ready for that. Sure, he could kiss her, but he would probably recoil and retch after a second, like the last time when he hugged her and he doesn’t want to do that to her. She deserves him without his armor and he is still trying to take it off.

So he stays in, sets up meetings, keeps his mind busy, plans out jobs, counts his kruge, anything to keep his mind busy, really, but when the sun sets she still shows up on his windowsill, looking like an apparition with her hair blowing in the wind and her skin glowing in the setting sun and his breath hitches in his throat and if he didn’t know that it’s not possible for a heart to stop at the mere sight of a person he would have sworn his does just that. But he knows better, so he just stares, heart in his throat.

“You didn’t come to the harbor,” she says, voice soft and thick like honey and want thrums through his veins in time with his quickened heartbeat.

He tries to collect his thoughts but she is so beautiful and she is here and he wants, he wants, he wants and his control is slipping so he balls his bare hands into tight fists, afraid if he doesn’t he might do something rash.

“Didn’t think you’d mind,” he finally grits out, voice steady but body tense all over. Her eyebrows shoot up and she enters the room, approaching him slowly and he watches and lets her.

“Of course I do. I didn’t come here just to see Wylan and Jesper.”

She pauses as if she is not sure if she should continue or not and ends up swallowing the rest of her sentence, coming to a halt at his desk, fingers dancing over the papers lying there and he wants to reach out and tangle his hand with hers, wants to pull her closer then, until she’s in front of him, closer still until she sits in his lap and he can feel a muscle in his jaw tick as he clenches his teeth. Her eyes are on him the entire time, noticing every little detail, noticing everything that might give him away and he doesn’t know if he wants her to know or if he wants her to just go so he can deal with this.

But this is Inej. Of course she notices.

“What’s wrong?” And her voice is so soft, so concerned that is fingers twitch, his control slipping and he wants.

“I just- I want to touch you so much,” he blurts out, startling not only her but also himself.

Her eyes search his face for a moment before they settle on his clenched fists that, he feels like, are the only things that keep him from reaching out to her.

“Why don’t you?” she asks, tilting her head to one side, a ghost of a smile forming on her lips that slowly grows and his self-restrained is about to snap and he is not ready, he can’t-.  “The last time you hugged me, and now I don’t even get a smile for a welcome?”

Her voice is soft and teasing and it’s too much. He reaches for her hand, grabs it maybe a little too hard and tugs, sending her sprawling onto him as he wraps his arms around her in a flourish.

His hands are wrapped around her waist and her shirt has ridden up a little, exposing just enough skin for his pinkies and parts of his palm to touch bare skin, his head nuzzling her neck, breathing her in and this is it, this is- too much, it’s too much, he can’t handle it, letting out a pained, choking gasp before practically shoving her off his lap.

Inej doesn’t fall; ever the acrobat she gains her balance and remains standing barely a few feet away from him, panting almost as heavily as he is and he buries his head in his hands, runs his fingers through his hair, face flushed, heart pounding. He’s panicking, afraid he ruined everything while his brother’s dead body bops up and down and up and down in front of his closed eyes.

“I’m sorry,” he gasps and tries to steady his breathing but he fails, hyperventilating instead. She has felt so good on him and against him but it had been awful too and he can’t get his thoughts straight, can’t focus, can’t-

And then there are hands on his arms, only touching the fabric of his rolled up sleeves but she tugs at them carefully, once, twice until he slowly but surely returns from the past to the here and now, he keeps his eyes closed and his body from rocking back and forth helplessly.

“I am the one who should apologize,” she murmurs quietly. “I just hoped…” She pauses and he knows what she hoped for; had been hoping for it too, had wanted to see her again without his armor but it seems to have more layers than either of them had realized.

He glances up at her and meets her eyes, sees disappointment and understanding and he resents himself for having done this to her. Kaz swallows thickly and his voice is stone scraping on stone.

“I hoped so too,” he tells her and her eyes widen. She had to know that he wants the two of them to have a future by now but to admit it out loud; she probably hasn’t thought that very likely to happen. And since his control is still slipping he spills out even more truths. ”I’m trying, you know,” he admits quietly and she watches him in wordless wonder. “I want to touch you so badly but I can’t. Not now.”

Her fingers twitch and he knows Inej wants to reach out and he can at least offer her that much. He lets one hand fall to his leg, fingers beckoning hers to join, to entwine and she does so, holding her breath until his thumb traces a soft circle against her hand, reassuring her that this is something he can deal with. He watches as different emotions cross her face before her expression morphs into one of careful curiosity.

“How comes it seems worse this time?” she asks, already afraid she has overstepped a line but Kaz has discovered that the lines between them have blurred and while he can’t give her the touch they both crave he can give her the words.

“Because it’s not just here,” he says, one finger tapping his forehead, a crooked, weak smile forming on his lips. “It’s everywhere else too.”

His dark eyes watch her face closely as he absorbs her reaction to this revelation. At first her brows furrow, then her eyes widen, a blush creeping up her neck to her cheeks and her hand twitches in his. Kaz can’t help but chuckle at that and Inej bites down on her lower lip – and he wishes he was at the point where he could sink his teeth in her lips – swallowing heavily. They maintain eye contact as her features transform again, shifting into mischief and want and heavens, she’s going to be the death of him one day.

“I want you that way too,” she tells him, voice husky and if he were normal, if he could be like anyone else he would kiss her now, cup her face in his hands and kiss her and kiss her until they both were out of breath and wanting more.

But as things are he simply tightens his grip on her hand and lets out the lowest groan that has ever come from his throat. He can feel his body answering to her words but he still can’t even touch himself, doing this with her right now would never work. Except his body doesn’t care about that and he has to close his eyes and just breathe for a moment.

When he opens them again, they watch each other for a few more moments before the desire that clouds his mind slowly recedes and he can think more clearly again.

“How long are you staying?”

“Only until tomorrow evening. My first mate got word that the Sankta Alina is making her way to Kerch waters. It’s pure blasphemy if you ask me, to name a ship after a saint that freed a big part of Ravka only to have it shipping slaves from one port to another.”

He smiles at that, comforted by Inej being Inej and he thinks I love you before he can stop himself. He knew that of course but that doesn’t stop him from holding his breath for a moment. The Wraith, perceptive as always, notices of course.

“What? Don’t mock my beliefs,” she scolds him.

“It’s not that.”

His voice is barely more than a whisper and he finds himself breathless, staring into her eyes. Without a thought or really intending to, the hand that’s not holding hers comes up to her face and cups her cheek. And maybe it’s the thoughtlessness of it or the way it happens just so naturally that the only thing he thinks is this is nice. He keeps his hand there until her surprised expression fades and she leans into his touch, his name falling from her lips quietly, the sound of it sending shivers down his spine. For a few moments they stay like that, then she turns her head and presses her lips to his palm, lets go of his hand and rises to her feet.

“You should come to the harbor tomorrow. To say goodbye,” she says and then she’s gone, leaving him with his heart hammering in his chest, the memory of her lips still tingling on his palm.

This night, the memory of her lips still fresh, he touches himself for the first time. Thoughts about her have him riled up so much that he barely manages to wrap his hand around himself and give himself an experimental tug before his toes are curling, muscles flexing and he comes all over his chest, body tingling pleasantly from release and he decides that all the fear and the doubt are worth it.

When he goes to the harbor to see her off he manages to hold on to her for a few seconds longer than the first time and her smile is soft and warm and he longs to kiss her and wants to run at the same time. He settles for squeezing her hand.

“Until next time,” he tells her and she squeezes back, returning the sentiment.

Once she’s on deck, Kaz shoves his hands in his pockets and puts on his gloves, ignoring the burning looks Wylan and Jesper are fixing him with. They will deal with it and he has better things to do, like planning jobs and setting up meetings and figuring out how much closer he is to being able to kiss those beautiful lips that touched him last night.

~~~~~~

Being able to touch himself is a pretty big step towards healing, Kaz observes. It’s nice to get himself off after an especially stressful day, to find his muscles uncoiling and his mind going blank for a moment, thoughts only fixed on Inej and her lips and the slope of her neck, the curve of her waist, the way she said his name when he held her face. It’s a pleasant way to end the day and it makes him feel good and accomplished.

Now he only needs to be able to touch her, which he still doesn’t feel entirely ready for and he can’t really work on that when she is oceans away but he can’t just will her back to Ketterdam, even though he tries – when he’s walking down the dark, shadowed alleys he hopes for her to simply appear beside him, when he’s lying in bed at night he wants her to come through the window and talk to him, when he sends Roeder on missions he wishes he were Inej instead and maybe it works because the Wraith docks again barely a month later, the crew loud and triumphant and Inej’s smile radiant and as beautiful as ever as she strolls down the gangway from her ship to the docks, eyes already fixed on him.

He leans heavily on his cane, the bad weather making his leg hurt worse than it usually does and he can feel the merchling and Jesper right behind him, watching curiously as Inej approaches. Kaz hasn’t really given any thought to how he would welcome her back, just knows that the possibility of her skin on his excites him more this time than it scares him and the Suli girl moves closer a little bit slower now assessing him, eyes falling on the bare skin of his hands and staying there for a moment before flickering back to his face and his lips curve into the smallest of smiles, by far not as warm and wide as hers but it’s as happy as he will allow himself to be in public.

Reading her body language he knows that there will be no hug this time, but she keeps eyeing his hands warily before returning to a point on his face again and again. He swallows thickly when he thinks he grasps the meaning of it and she is only a few feet away when her smile falters a little bit. Stop me if you don’t want this, her eyes seem to stay but he angles his face towards hers instead, stealing himself for her touch.

Her lips are warm and a little wet and rough from the sea as she presses them against his cheek and he shivers, not knowing if it’s from her touch or from fear. She lingers for a heartbeat or two, then breaks away and proceeds to walk toward their friends to greet them.

Kaz feels alive.

~~~~~~

When Inej comes by this evening the sun has already set due to the shortening days and she shuts the window behind her as she slips into the room. She casts a shy smile his way and he returns it briefly, finishing the remaining papers as she strolls closer and stops at his desk, her hips resting against the wood of it.

The black clothes she’s wearing are rather formfitting and for a moment he is completely captivated by the way her waist looks. When he manages to tear his gaze away from the enticing curve of her hips he sees the satisfaction on her face and returns it crookedly. Curse her from knowing exactly what she’s doing to him; it makes him cherish her even more.

He cocks his head to the side and gives her another pointed, long once over, making sure to linger in all the places he wants to touch desperately, being torn between cursing the black fabric for covering her up so much and being grateful for the very same thing, while deliberately pulling off his gloves finger by finger.

Her eyes are dazed when he meets them again, her lower lip sucked into her mouth and her breath going a little irregularly. He hopes he made her want him as much as he wants her right now.

“You look like you’re about to do a job,” he tells her in a low voice and she grins at him, eyes shining with mischief.

“I am about to.”

“There are no ships to take over in Ketterdam.”

Her eyebrow arches at that.

“No, but maybe one of Roeder’s jobs.”

Kaz blinks at her slowly, trying to make sense of her words. His heart catches up faster than his mind does and his lips part a little as his heart thunders in his chest, surely he must have misheard her.

“That would imply staying for longer than a night,” he says, coloring the jubilant disbelief in his voice by trying to sound as bored and unsurprised as ever but she sees right through him, smiling wildly and reaching out her hand to his.

He takes it without another thought, fingers entwining a little awkwardly and there is the expected flash of bodies crossing his mind but it’s a fleeting thought and Inej’s fingers stay where they are, anchoring him right where he is.

“Good thing I am staying for a fortnight then,” she tells him, fingers tracing patterns on his hand as she smiles wickedly.

By now the want is nothing new and it doesn’t throw him off this time, only tempts him to try things and taking in a deep breath he reaches out his second hand, pulling her closer until she is standing right in front of him, his knees touching her legs and he carefully leans forward, letting go of her hands so he can wrap his arms around her instead.

At first the only thing he touches is the fabric and that he can deal with perfectly fine, but when he rests his head against her stomach and her hands come up to his shoulders fear rears its nasty head once more, sending a forceful shudder through him that doesn’t stem from pleasure.

“This is enough, you know.”

“No. More,” he demands, not daring to raise his head and her hands shift from his shoulders, one settling on the slope where his neck meets his shoulder, fingers carefully brushing over his neck as her other hand brushes along the side of his head, where his hair is cropped short, moving up and up until it touches the back of his head where his hair is longer, fingers toying with it in what he would think is absentmindedness if he didn’t know better.

Focusing on her warmth, on her realness helps wash away the short wave of nausea that threatens to come over him and he hums out a dark note of utter content. Partly because it’s her and she’s back and she’s here, partly because this is an accomplishment and this little victory goes to his mind and not his body.

“I’m glad,” he murmurs, words barely audible over the noise drifting up from downstairs but he knows she hears because her fingers halt for a moment before continuing to play with his hair, slipping beneath his collar to touch the heated skin of his neck and he doesn’t want to recoil, doesn’t want more either for a moment, something that is most likely to change the moment he looks at her.

“Me too,” she confesses softly and he can hear the smile in her voice.

It is a little pathetic but he just has to see it so he leans back, her hands sliding back to his shoulders at the movement, ready to withdraw and he actually feels a loss at that. Her smile is soft and reassuring and so warm it turns his insides to mush in this ridiculously pleasant way he is just getting to know now.

He gives her a smile in return, hands still resting on her lower back and her breath hitches, hands tightening at his neck and when her lips part he finds himself thinking about what she would taste like if he would stand up and press her mouth to his.

“I would very much like to kiss you now, Kaz Brekker,” she whispers.

His hands move from her back to her hips as he slowly raises himself from his chair, standing right in front of her, faces only inches apart. He can feel her breath against his cheeks and he shivers unpleasantly at the feel of it, but the queasiness passes rather quickly and leaves only the alluring sensation of wanting in him.

He is scared and thrilled and inexperienced as he tips his head forward, foreheads coming to a rest against each other and they inhale sharply at the same moment.

“Only if you are really sure about this,” she says as another tremor courses through his body but he has come this far and the feeling of her lips on his palm, on his cheek haunt him, leaving him craving for more and her hands must feel the clamminess of his neck, her hips the shake of his hands but yet his fear is not overwhelming.

“You have no idea how much I want you to, Inej,” he assures her.

Kaz watches her swallow thickly.

“Just say the word and I’ll stop,” her honey voice is husky, her eyes clouded by desire that his must mirror and then her hands are moving from his neck to his face, cupping his cheeks and he goes stiff, feeling suffocated and he inhales sharply, thinking of bodies again and he doesn’t want to stop, not just yet, he still wants to know what she tastes like but this doesn’t work, not like this and his hands snatch her clothed wrists and pull them down.

“Wait,” he gasps and she halts immediately, looking up at him with wide eyes, already moving to take a step back but he keeps her in place.

Maybe he can’t handle her touch yet, but maybe he can touch her and he just wants to kiss her, craves for the taste of her and before he can think himself out of it he bends down and presses his mouth to hers. The moment their lips touch he can feel her gasp against his mouth, lips parting slightly and this is nothing like death or decay, this is life and softness and warmth and he can’t think when she moves her lips against his, returning the press of his mouth with her own and it’s so different from feeling her lips on his cheek or on his palm. It’s softer and a little wetter and he parts his lips too, tongue quickly darting forward to lick against her lips, to get that taste he went in for in the first place and this must be the bravest thing he has ever done. His tongue is still trailing the outline of her lips when her tongue comes to meet his and he shivers again, halting her in her movements but this shiver is one of pleasure so he touches his tongue to hers again and hears a little moan escape her throat and they are kissing, they are kissing and there is life thrumming through him, followed by a wave of desire and his hands let go of her wrists and wrap around her again, one coming to a rest on her lower back, the other on her waist and he tilts his head a little, breathing through his nose so the kiss can go on forever but then her arms are wrapped around his neck, bare fingers brushing over the skin on his neck and he flinches away, the wetness of her mouth suddenly the sea and the fingers on his skin corpses around him.

Inej lets go immediately, retreating a step until they face each other panting heavily, cheeks heated and lips swollen and the way she looks at him like she wants to eat him up alive enough to send all the memories away until only the ghost of his lips on hers remain. He watches Inej close her eyes and put a hand to her mouth, fingers brushing over her lips and he wants to pull them away and pull her closer again but the shock of her fingers on him is still fresh and he can’t take that step yet.

Kaz clears his throat, licks his lips, her taste lingering on them, on his tongue and he swallows down a groan. This was so much better than he has ever expected it to be.

“I’ve never-“ Inej starts but stops and swallows and blushes before she continues. “I’ve never felt more present.”

Her voice is soft and incredulous and he remembers I feel like I’m going to vanish. But not this time. Not when they had kissed.

“I’m glad,” he rasps, voice unsteady and even lower than normal, shaken by fear and laced with desire.

Their eyes meet and hold and she smiles at him tentatively. His feelings are still a wild jumble so he doesn’t really manage a smile in return but still quirks his lips a little in response. Her tongue darts out and licks her lips and he almost takes a step forward to make a grab for her but he restrains himself, holding himself back so he doesn’t have to hurt her by pushing her away again because his body reacts to things it’s not yet ready for.

“If you still want one of Roeder’s jobs,” he starts, forcing his voice to be steady, having to tear his eyes away from the curve of her lips and his words come out shaking a little, his voice even darker than usual. “Come here tomorrow. I have something that requires the expertise of the Wraith.”

“Is there going to be more kissing?” she asks teasingly, startling a little, breathless laugh out of him.

“That depends on how long you’re going to stay,” he replies, still sounding a little breathless from the kiss and the prospect of doing it again so soon.

Hand reaching for his their fingers entwine again, this time a lot more naturally than the times before. Maybe they are finally getting the practice they need for these little touches to become normal.

“I’ll be the first to come and the last to leave.”

“I must be a real good kisser then.”

She casts him a grin at the teasing note in his voice, her grin turning mischievous.

“You are actually so awful that you need a few more lessons before becoming even close to acceptable,” she retorts drily and he chuckles again, giddy with the prospect of more kisses, with the knowledge that kissing is possible, pleasant even.

He lets her statement stand like this even as he remembers her little moan when their tongues had touched – he is pretty sure that was a result of him being the one who kissed her rather than his actual skills but still, he remembers the noise and thinks he probably wasn’t that bad.

“I expect you to teach me better then,” he tells her, voice sounding a lot more steady than he feels.

“I can try,” she says and then her smile broadens and he wants. He wants to pull her closer again and do the things to her he has only dreamed of doing to her so far but instead he only squeezes her hand a little. “Maybe even show you where to put those hands of yours whenever you feel up for that.”

Kaz thinks about his hands on her hips, on her backside, on her breasts and he feels the last remnants of his fear go out of the window to be replaced by desire that makes itself knowable, his pants suddenly feeling too tight for comfort. But he is in a good mood, and this is Inej so he doesn’t stop there, instead reaches for her other hand and squeezes them both.

“Whenever I feel up for that or whenever I want to feel you up?”

He manages to deliver the line with a straight face even when his heart does double takes in his chest and Inej lets out a surprised guffaw before squeezing back, eyes shining with light and happiness and this is the sound he would give everything for.

“I had no idea that Dirtyhands also has a dirty mouth,” she laughs and Kaz only grins at her a little dumbly, amazed by the way her lips are curved and her eyes are shining and he really wouldn’t mind to kiss her again – just maybe not yet, maybe not today.

The same thought seems to cross her mind because she squeezes his hands briefly before letting go, brushing a few loose strands behind her ear and he decides her hair is something he has to learn how to touch too.

“I will see you tomorrow then.”

She nods.

“I will be there.”

~~~~~~

And she is. She doesn’t come in through the window this time, she comes through the front door and just like he always knows when she is there he can hear it clearly now as the Dregs welcome the Wraith back home except the Wraith is a pirate now and her home is the sea. He doesn’t rush to meet her; sits it out instead, one glove already tugged of so he can greet her with a squeeze of his hand before the meeting begins.

He barely has time to do so because she gets held up downstairs and when she enters the room the others are only a few feet behind her so they just quickly brush hands and when the rest of the crew for this job filters in his gloves are already in place again. He is almost a little disappointed by that but considering how he had been doing yesterday after she had left when one time had simply not been enough it is probably for the better.

Kaz explains the details of his newest plan, which involves spying on and eventually exposing one of the rather prosperous pleasure houses in the Barrel that also serves as an undercover slave market, keeps a little of it to himself that only serves as a back out plan anyway and tries not to look too much at Inej, who stands in a corner, half hidden by shadows. He can still make out the look in her eyes, the desire he sees there that’s almost enough to distract him. Kaz Brekker might be a monster but even he has morals even if he does his best to pretend he doesn’t, Inej obviously thinks this is rather attractive.

The job is supposed to start tomorrow and while it’s not that extraordinary, Inej is still the best spy he has for this job, mostly because the property is heavily guarded and he doesn’t trust Roeder not to get himself killed.

After the briefing everyone files out except the Wraith who does move toward the door but only to close it, taking her sweet time while doing so. When she turns back to him Kaz is right behind her, his gloves still on his hand and there is a brief flash of disappointment as she notices his leather clad fingers.

“I want to try something,” he tells her and she barely has time to nod her consent before his gloved fingers cup her face and he leans down to capture her lips with his.

Replaying that kiss in his mind yesterday made it painfully obvious, that it had been the touch of her fingertips that send him out of control, the touch of lips on lips was not what made him retreat.

Her hands come up to wrap around his wrists, still covered up by his shirt but she seems to understand. Inej returns the kiss, lets him tease and play and explore, returning the kiss a little carefully but just as desperately. When their tongues come into play she lets out a soft whimper, teeth briefly biting down on his lower lip and that elicits a groan for him and he rolls his hips forward, bad knee buckling a little and suddenly her back is pressed against the door and his knee is wedged between her legs and his hips grind against her softly, barely and it already feels so good he contemplates taking his gloves of and slipping his hands under the shirt she is wearing, touching the bare skin of her back and maybe letting her tug open the collar of his shirt so her hands can touch his chest and the thought is almost too much and his hips roll quite jerkily on their own accord against hers, his hardened length pressing against her center for a moment and it feels so good but then her hands tighten almost painfully on his wrists and he breaks away from her, panting heavily, his mind still a little clouded from lust but her eyes are wide and she looks backed into a corner and he somehow must have made her remember something, so he tries to back away, to give her the room she seems to need but her grip on his wrists tightens again, rooting him to her.

“Stay,” she whispers. “Please, you’re keeping me here.” He knows the Suli girl has her own demons, remembers that moment in the bathroom all too clearly, but sometimes he forgets that her monsters are just as big and terrifying and his own if not even worse at times.  “Can I-?” she asks, fingertips tugging at the tips of his gloves and he nods and lets her take one off and then guide his hand back to her cheek.

Thinking of her demons seems to keep his own at bay and he lets his hand cradle her face, thumb brushing the apple of her cheek tenderly before he brushes a stray strand behind her ear, fingers curiously tangling in her black hair, fascinated by the thick, unruly texture. With his thoughts focused solemnly on her his body reacts to her closeness, to the feeling of skin against skin as if it is something ordinary, as if simply being able to touch her without thinking of water and bloated skin isn’t a small miracle on its own.

“What can I do?” he asks, wanting to help but knowing that being here with her is probably the best he can do.

“You’re doing it already,” she confirms his suspicions and he sighs, fingers stroking along her neck, where she is warm and soft and so different from what haunts him in his nightmares. She is the opposite of death, she’s life personified under his hands, a small marvel to behold and yet she is just as broken as he is, her cracks are simply different from his own, buried in her bone and marrow instead of resting right on her skin.

“I am sorry I didn’t get you out there sooner,” he murmurs and she sighs, fingers brushing over his bare wrist where she can feel his heartbeat thrumming beneath her fingertips.

“You didn’t know I was there. You wouldn’t have cared.”

She’s right of course and they fall quiet for a few moments, their ragged breathing slowly returning to normal.

“What set you off?” he asks eventually, watching her face as she lowers her eyes and fixes them on the buttons of his shirt instead of his face.

“You rolled your hips like one of them did,” she admits and he knows that this is probably nothing in contrast to the other things she went through but it still angers him on her behalf and she seems to feel his tension and anger because her eyes flicker to his face, giving him a stern look. “You are not hunting him down to break something in his body.”

This time Kaz sighs, running a hand through his hair before pursing his lips for a moment.

“He’d deserve it. They all would,” he grumbles eventually, letting just the slightest hint of possessiveness show and she smiles at that, as if thinking that she deserved more was as good as hitting one of her clients in the face.

“Didn’t know you were territorial,” she teases and her demons must be retreating because the light is slowly returning to her eyes.

“I’m not,” he says even though he is. Her fingertips draw lazy circles over his wrist and with another sigh he leans forward and rests his forehead against hers. Her warmth and the thought of everything she went through makes the touch comforting and comfortable and he doesn’t feel like he has to pull away anytime soon. “Maybe those were enough lessons for today.”

She lets out a low hum of agreement but still holds on to his hands.

“Almost,” she murmurs and holds his gaze as she tilts her head up, lips brushing tentatively over his and he kisses her quickly before she releases him and he takes a few steps back.

“I will start spying tonight,” she says instead of a goodbye and he nods at her, settling back behind his desk, both of them sharing a small, content smile before she slips out into the daylight.

The last rays of the golden sunlight practically light her skin up and for a moment Kaz is struck by how beautiful she is all over again. How can someone so good have feelings for a monster like him, he wonders for a moment before admitting to himself that maybe even monsters like him deserve some good and if she wants him he can allow himself to have her.

~~~~~~

The next day the weather is horrible. It’s raining all day and well into the evening and his leg is aching terribly. But there is an especially annoying lowlife that tried to withhold a bunch of money the Dregs had borrowed him – he had seemed like a good investment at the time and Kaz had calculated it right. The guy is from one of the richer families and understands quite a lot about the market so the money had been well invested since in no time he had doubled, tripled and eventually quadrupled it. Shame that he had decided to withhold a good third of what the owed the Dregs when he had come by to pay them back today. Too bad that Kaz had already had the feeling that he was going to try to double cross him, even worse that he had confirmed the suspicion. So Dirtyhands had come out to play and roughened him up a little.

Now, reentering his office after climbing up the stairs to his bedroom to change, the rain is still pouring down outside like it’s trying to drown the city. Kaz can still feel the way his clothes had stuck to him like a second skin and the chill from the rain remains in his bones. He hates the feeling of rain but even though it’s pouring and there is water everywhere, rain has never been a problem for him.

He has just settled down and is about to put his bad leg up when a tap sounds against his window, louder than the rain and he looks up to find Inej perched on the windowsill. With a sigh he gets up again and opens the window just long enough for her to enter the room.

“What’s business?” he asks upon seeing the hardened expression on her face.

This is what Captain Ghafa must look like. Determined, merciless and a little scary if he’s being honest, not that he would ever admit that to anyone but himself.

“There’s supposed to be an auction in two days,” she says the minute her feet hit the ground. “The girls are barely older than ten and they don’t want to sell them as servant girls or anything like that; they are supposed to be lust slaves. They are children, Kaz! Children!” Inej’s whole body is shaking from anger, from outrage, from disgust and the cold. She is so angry she looks like she is about to explode and her furious gaze is fixed on him. “But you already knew that, didn’t you? You know about everything that’s happening in the city and yet you’ve let it go on for months, haven’t you?”

She’s seething and Kaz crosses his arms in front of his chest, leaning against his desk, trying to appear impassive while his heart is clenching in his chest. He should have seen this coming. He really should have.

“Without you there was nothing I could do to confirm that this was really happening,” he states calmly which only seems to infuriate her further.

“But you knew! The almighty Kaz Brekker could have taken this on without me! Roeder is no terrible spy, he could have confirmed what was happening-“

He interrupts her before she can finish her sentence.

“The last time he tried he got captured and tortured. He was lucky to make it back here and he has been unable to do any jobs since then. The moment he’d get reinstated by the medik – because luckily he will heal – I would have send him out again but that only happened a week ago and I don’t have enough men to send in there, guns blazing in hopes of getting those girls out. One of the new recruits is currently posing as an interested aristocrat so we will have access to the auction but I needed you to figure out where they hold the girls; Roeder was unable to attain this information. I needed you for this job.” Inej’s expression is a little softer now but she is still tense and there is still anger radiating off of her so he admits yet another truth. “I want to do this with you, Inej.”

She crosses her arms over her chest defiantly and glares at him and this is the worst possible time to notice the way her clothes are soaked through and clinging to her body. But he does anyway.

“You should have done something sooner,” she growls but he knows she understands so he limps back to the other side of his desk and sits down heavily, watching her as she draws closer.

“I couldn’t. After they discovered Roeder they knew the Dregs were onto them so they kept an eye open for any members. I had to recruit a new one solemnly for the purpose of sending him in there to cause a distraction while we would try to free the girls. With you they can make it.”

Taking in a deep breath she unclenches her fists and places her palms on the table, bracing herself on her arms for a moment.

“I hate that you’re right.”

“I know.”

When she looks at him again he notices the way her wet hair frames her face, the way she seems so defeated and sad all of a sudden and with a sigh he pulls a glove off one of his hands and holds it out to her. He doesn’t really expect her to take it but she does without a second thought, squeezing his fingers painfully.

“We have to save them.”

Kaz squeezes back.

“We will.”

~~~~~~

Of course only part of his plan works out the way he intended it to and while the girls are freed his new recruit barely gets away from the auction alive and Inej gets shot. The bullet only grazes her and it doesn’t seem to be too bad at first but then they have to run and it starts bleeding and there is a lot of blood and he’s mad at himself for thinking that the Wraith was invincible again when he knows perfectly well she isn’t.

As they hurriedly make their way down side alleys and shadowed streets, her arm is slung around his shoulders, bare wrist occasionally brushing his neck as they limp toward one of the safe houses, taking as many detours as possible to make sure they aren’t followed, unable to get to the roof with her injured leg. It’s a real sign of how far he has come but he can’t appreciate his progress when his leg feels wet from her blood and she slumps more and more in his arms with each stumbling step.

It’s by far not as bad as when she had been stabbed but because they can’t stop just yet she’s losing a little too much blood for his liking and he just wants to bind the wound up properly, putting on a real bandage instead of the make-shift constriction she’s wearing and let her rest but the safe house is still a block away and Inej’s not going to last much longer before she’s going to pass out from the pain and while she’s not going to bleed out or die he still can’t carry her to the safe house by himself. He shouldn’t have insisted that the two of them were fine by themselves. But what is done is done and he has more important things to worry about right now.

“Stay with me just a little longer,” he mutters, gloved hands tightening on her waist and wrist and he suppresses a sigh of relief when he feels her squeezing back.

“Not going anywhere yet,” she answers. “It just hurts so bad.”

The pain in her voice is a real, touchable thing and he wants to take it from her but he can’t do anything just yet so he merely keeps walking.

“We’re almost there,” he says and it’s true, he can see the safe house already.

He picked it because it is an abandoned building in a street filled with abandoned buildings but it has a great overview of the street and there are a few things stored they will need now but just when their destination is close enough to see, Inej’s leg gives out and they go down.

“I’m sorry.”

Her words are accompanied by a sob and he can’t bear it. This is not how this mission is supposed to go and she needs help now not later so he lets out a string of curses lifts her in his arms and simply enters the closest building with a broken window. It’s cold and windy and he carries her down a long hallway until they get to an area that is sheltered from the wind. It’s far less than optional but it will have to do. He sets her down and leans her against the wall, one hand quickly brushing comfortingly over her face.

“You’re going to be alright,” he tells her and she nods, but he can see the pain on her face, her golden skin a little paler than usual.

“Okay.”

They don’t have any bandages at hand so Kaz has to improvise. With shaking hands he takes off his coat and when his gloved hands are unable to undo his buttons he basically rips them off so he can fumble the garment open. Her eyes are on him the entire time as he strips out of his shirt and starts ripping it into pieces.

“When we don’t get to the safe house they will look for us,” he assures her, taking in the way the blood flow seems to slow now that they stopped moving. “They will find us.”

His fingers are trembling when he reaches for her leg and puts pressure on her wound before he starts to dress it. He might not be a medik but he has learned a trick or two. He barely registers when his fingers graze the part of her thigh that’s bared by the rip in her pants, too focused on making sure the wound is properly taken care of.

“You know,” she says and he glances up briefly from his work to look at her face, letting out a relieved sigh when he already sees the color returning to her cheeks, eyes returning back to his work. “Those muscles of yours really drive me crazy sometimes.” His head snaps up at that again and there is a smile playing upon her lips and he lets out a relieved chuckle at the sight of it.

“I didn’t know you even noticed,” he says even though he has hoped she would, none of the things he did in the past – like stripping in front of her – ever unintentional, even though it’s nice to know that it apparently worked quite well.

“I always did. I always wanted to touch them actually. Still do, now that you might let me.”

He messes up the knot at that and gives her a warning glare as she only chuckles.

“I’m trying to take care of you here,” he admonishes her softly, tying the knot and inspecting his handy work. It will do for now.

She shrugs nonchalantly, hands reaching for him tentatively and he is so glad the color is back in her face and the sparkle in her eyes has returned that he just nods and she carefully cradles her face in her hands.

“And I love you for it.”

Her voice is soft, barely audible actually and he is absolutely dumbfounded for a moment. He knows how he feels about her, has admitted it to himself months ago and he knows she feels the same way; he just thought that it would take them forever to say the words out loud, like it seems to take them forever with everything else.

He just hums quietly and her fingers trace soft circles into his skin, cold and wet against his cheek and suddenly he has to swallow down the lump in his throat, fight the shaking in his hands as he suddenly remembers the shallows of Reaper’s Barge, the smell of rotting flesh, the feel of bloating skin underneath his fingers. He has to remind himself that this is Inej, Inej who got shot and who loves him, not corpses that try to make him join their ranks.

“Tell me something. Please,” he presses out through gritted teeth and her fingers still, as if knowing that any comforting touch would only worsen things. She even tries to pull back but he mutters a quiet no and she keeps them right where they are.

“I never thought that I would love being a pirate as much as I do,” she starts quietly and he breathes in and out slowly. “It’s not just the hunting down slavers and freeing people. I love the sea. It’s so beautiful. One moment it can be so calm and serene and the next it tries to swallow you whole. There is something beautiful about how it can never be tamed, how it’s always free, its own master.”

His breathing is almost back to normal now and his eyes are fixed on her face as he kneels beside her.

“You are your own master too, Inej.”

“I haven’t always been though. But the sea reminds me that I am now and I love that feeling.”

Carefully her fingers start tracing circles into his skin again and this time, while his heart still flutters wildly and afraid, the memories stay where they are, leaving only Inej. I love you, he thinks again and this time he almost says it out loud.

“I am sorry I am not stronger,” he says instead. “That I still can’t touch you in all the ways I want to. That you might want me to.”

Her smile is soft and warm and one of her hands moves and her fingers brush his lips, sending a pleasant shiver down his back. Kaz wants to kiss her again but he doesn’t dare to, not yet.

“I want you to touch me in all the ways you can imagine and then some.”

He smiles back at her, mischief shining in his eyes.

“I have you know I have a very vivid imagination.”

Inej bites her lower lip, leaning forward until they are only inches apart, as always leaving it up to him if he wants to cross the remaining space or rather not touch. He leans in, resting his forehead against hers.

“I can’t wait for you to show me.”

And that’s when he tilts his head and kisses her. His hands come up to cradle her face and the kiss becomes heated almost right away. Shivers run down his back, partially from want, partially from fear, partially from the cold and just imagining her not getting off that easily makes him just the slightest bit reckless and he takes her hands and guide them to his neck, fingers dancing over his heated skin, then taking them a little lower until they brush over his collar bones, further until they settle on his chest, feeling his rapidly beating heart. He even allows them to ghost over his abdomen, her fingers sending chills down his spine and want rushing through him and he wants her to touch him more, fleetingly thinking of allowing her hands even further down, to where his pants are too snuck and where he craves relief. And as long as he’s in control, as long as he steers her movements it’s easy. He guides her hands back to his shoulders, then lets go. That’s when the fear returns, not full force but an insistent feeling that’s slowly nagging at him as she breaks away from his lips to look at him for a moment.

“I-“, she starts, voice low and husky, causing him to shift involuntarily as his pants grow even tighter yet and she clears her throat. “I want to-“ She pauses again, giving a pointed glance to the dent in his tailored pants that are far too tight at the moment. “I want to touch you.”

And heavens he wants her to. Wants to see if she already can, if he can let this happen, give his body over to her and he is just about to tell her yes, please when they hear voices at the end of the hallway. Moments later a few of the other Dregs are rushing down the hallway. A bunch of the younger and newer ones snicker at the half-dressed state they find them in, assuming they had stumbled upon them about to get down and dirty while the rest just sees Inej’s wound, probably already assuming that Dirtyhands took care of the Wraith and they had stumbled upon them before Kaz could get dressed again. Neither of them is wrong or right but Kaz knows for sure that the second assumption will be known as the truth and that’s probably better for his reputation.

Even if he still burns to find out if Inej’s touch would have felt as good as his own or even better or if it would have sent him running.

One glance at her assures him that they would soon find out.

~~~~~~

It’s the first time in a few months that Kaz heads to the Van Eck residence. It’s not necessarily that he didn’t want to visit Wylan and by extension Jesper, it’s just that he has been busy and maybe he has been looking for an excuse not to go because seeing the two boys together made him yearn for Inej and yearning is something that Kaz Brekker simply does not do so he stayed clear of the sharpshooter and his merchling. But Inej stays there and the medik that treated her the day before had been very adamant that she spend a few days in bed to cure her leg. Inej had not been happy about it but had still welcomed the excuse to visit her friends in lieu of spending the days holed up on her ship.

Kaz had almost offered her his bed but he had a feeling that this would not have been very wise, the distraction that she presents too great for him to focus on his work as Dirtyhands and that’s not something he can allow to happen.

Wylan himself is the one who opens the door and his smile is wide and open, freckles showing in the last light of the day and if Kaz weren’t Kaz he would probably hug the guy. But he’s still him so he just gives him a nod and enters the house.

Jesper is waiting inside and he briefly puts a hand on his shoulder and squeezes before heading off to what Kaz remembers must be the saloon. His eyes trail after the dark skinned man for a moment before settling back on Wylan, who’s smiling a little awkwardly at him.

“Inej’s in there,” he says, motioning at the room Jesper just disappeared into. “My mom too. I think Inej likes her.”

Kaz nods again and then simply follows Wylan into the saloon. The two women are there indeed. Marya Hendriks has a half-finished painting in front of her, of Inej who sits at the window and is staring outside, a far-off look and a faint smile on her face. She still sits at the window now but her eyes are fixed on him now and the grin on her face is wide and maybe a little surprised.

“I didn’t think you’d come here!” she exclaims and stands up, flinching when her wounded leg is jolted by her movements and he glares at her, which makes her sit back down and roll her eyes at once.

“I thought it was time,” he says with a shrug and he hears a faint grumble that probably stems from Jesper.

Leave it to him to be grumpy about Kaz not showing sooner. He probably thought he didn’t care about them anymore and Kaz is actually tempted to let him think so, everything would be better than them knowing the truth; that it was because whenever Kaz was around the two of them he felt like he had been kicked in the gut and longed for Inej.

“Are you staying for dinner?”

The question is tentative and Kaz turns to fix his eyes on Wylan who now stands beside Jesper, not quite touching, but not apart either and for a moment he asks himself if Inej and he also seem to gravitate towards one another like those two do. He wants to stay. He wants to go. He wants to get a few minutes alone with Inej so he can kiss her again and make sure she’s doing okay. Instead he eyes the merchant for a long moment, until Wylan squirms before he shrugs subtly.

“Sure. Why not.”

Throwing up his hands and grumbling something under his breath Jesper leaves the room, followed by Wylan who gives the pirate and the Barrel boss an eye roll before joining the sharpshooter. Kaz eyes Marya for a moment, assessing her but the woman is still drawing, her whole attention fixed on the painting before her so he carefully steps closer until he stands in front of Inej, who’s looking at him reproachfully.

“You couldn’t have just said yes, could you?” she asks and he reaches out his hand – gloved tonight – and she takes it right away, squeezing slightly. “Especially since you never intended on not staying for dinner.”

He feels a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth and lets it show for a flickering moment that has Inej squeezing his hand a little tighter, smiling back at him.

“You’re still a bastard, Brekker,” she teases and he laughs quietly because she’s right.

“Do you really expect me to change?”

“One can only hope,” is what she says but her words are betrayed by the smile on her face and the shake of her head.

He might never be a good man but he is enough for her and that’s all he ever wants to be. There is the noise of someone clearing their throat and they turn, hands lingering a moment longer before letting go and facing the employee standing in the door frame.

“Dinner is served.”

Then she quickly wheels Wylan’s mother out of the room, leaving the two of them to follow. Kaz helps Inej to get up, slinging her arm around his neck and one around her waist to help her to stand, like the day before when they limped down the alley. Except now she keeps herself in place and he can lean on his crane as they start to shuffle out of the room.

“Hey,” she says softly before they are out of the door and he turns his head to look at her only to feel her lips press into his for a moment.

The kiss takes him by surprise but it’s a good one and when she breaks away he gives her a soft look before continuing to the dining room.

Dinner is a pleasant affair. After the initial surprise over Kaz helping Inej fades, conversation starts to flow and soon it’s almost like old times, the only ones painfully missing Nina and Matthias. They talk about the market, about the Dregs, about business and Inej’s ship and for the most part Kaz simply listens to the stories they trade, is content to be around people he cares for and maybe he lets that show a little, relaxing in his chair while eating, smiling every then and now when Jesper or Wylan tells a particularly funny story and even while nobody says anything his behavior doesn’t go unnoticed.

After dinner Marya is put to bed and they settle in the saloon, still chatting, still enjoying one another’s company and when it’s already a little into the night Kaz decides to take his leave. Thinking about what Wylan and Jesper already saw at the port he has the fleeting thought of screw it before he leans down and quickly pecks Inej on the cheek before showing himself out. The astonished guffaw Jesper lets out is loud enough that he can hear it even after the door falls shut behind him.

He smiles all the way home, a secret smile hidden by the high collar of his coat but a smile nonetheless. There have been no thoughts of water and bodies tonight and there is a happy buzzing sensation in his stomach that Kaz wouldn’t mind holding onto a little while longer.

~~~~~~

Another two nights pass before he sees Inej again and he can’t say he’s really happy about it since she enters the room through his bedroom window. Of course he is happy to see her but he can’t keep the scowl from his face when she comes into the room and he sees a brief flash of pain pass over her face. She is supposed to be resting and not climbing the roofs of Ketterdam. But then again he would not let himself rest and he is not surprised when she doesn’t either. They are very much alike when it comes to taking care of themselves; they both are terrible at it.

“You should be resting,” he tells her, still scowling but she just shrugs and takes in the half-undressed state he is in.

Kaz has been changing into another shirt because there had been blood on the one he wore before – Dirtyhands had some dirty business today that had involved giving someone a few fists in the face just to show them that the Bastard of the Barrel was no one to be messed with – and he hasn’t gotten around to button it up yet so his upper body is exposed to the hungry glint in Inej’s eyes and she looks very much like a predator taking in her prey. It feels even more so when she – her eyes never leaving his chest – practically struts through the room, bypasses the desk and the empty chair there entirely to settle down on his bed instead, leaned back with her legs crossed, bracing herself on her arms and his hormones go into override at the sight of her on his bed, his perfect composure faltering as his heart starts hammering in his chest and his body starts wanting with a force that makes him catch his breath for a moment.

Inej smiles innocently at that; a perfect sign that she knows exactly what she’s doing to him, the blush that covers her skin giving her away even further and he doesn’t believe in saints or gods but he finds himself praying for some self-restraint anyway because she makes him want to go over there and cover every free inch of her skin in kisses – which, he notices with an involuntary arch of his eyebrow, is more on display than usual, her hands and neck bare as always but the dark green shirt she wears is riding up, exposing a sliver of skin above her pants that he finds himself desperate to touch and taste. Tearing his eyes away from that particular sliver of skin he finds her grinning at him widely, fully aware of what she’s doing to him. His scowl deepens and she raises an eyebrow at that, her grin widening further.

“What? I am resting now, aren’t I?”

“Obviously,” he deadpans.

He’s surprised to find his voice steady, unaffected by what’s in front of him while his body is very affected by it, obviously affected by it even, he’d say, given the lingering glance Inej fixes his crotch with. For a moment he curses his body for betraying him with that, but then she glances up, her eyes hooded and hungry, teeth biting her lower lip and he remembers that things are different now. He wants this; probably as much as he fears this but it’s not something he actually has control over anymore.

“You’re allowed to touch, you know.”

Her voice is soft, signaling him that it’s okay to say no even if she can see how much he wants to reach out. But it’s not a question of wanting, it’s a question of being able to and he is not sure he can. Though, as he stalks nearer, he can’t help reflecting back to all the instances his memories have overwhelmed him and he becomes painfully aware that he has only pushed her away once because of his own doing; all the other instances it had been her touch that made him relive the Reaper’s Barge and bodies and the water and he thinks while maybe her touch might still be too much maybe he can touch her, just like he had been able to kiss her what feels like a long time ago. He has dreamed about it often enough to know where to start, especially with her sitting like this. There had been quite a few late night thoughts that started out just like this.

“I will,” he says, stopping in front of her.

Kaz takes another moment to appreciate her staring up at him through oily black lashes, her eyes darkened by desire, her gaze lingering on his face, drifting lower and lower until settling on the hardness straining against his pants before slowly trailing back up. A shiver runs down his spine and he kneels down in front of her, fingers reaching for her legs. She takes in a sharp breath and his eyes flicker up, taking in the way she bites her lip and she tightens her grip in the sheets. He has to remind himself of her demons, of the way she has been treated and lets his fingers draw soft, soothing circles into the fabric on her knees.

“We don’t have to do anything,” he assures her and suddenly she’s glaring down at him and for once he can’t figure out what he has done wrong right away.

“But I want this. I want you,” she says it so firmly, so confidently that he stares at her in wonder for a moment before gripping her knees and pushing her legs apart so he can fit between them, then he leans up until their faces are merely inches apart.

“You’re so strong,” he whispers softly, hands still braced on her knees, thumbs still drawing circles. “But I know how monsters are and I don’t want yours to come between this. So stop me before you vanish.”

Inej breathes in deeply, tilting her head up and dragging her lips slowly over his.

“I will. But I am here now and I want you to touch me, Kaz. Please.”

He groans lowly, then he bridges the remaining distance between them and presses his lips to hers. While their lips melt into each other, while their tongues start touching and their teeth start nipping, he trails his hand up her knees, along her outer thighs, along her hips until his fingers touch the warm skin that she offers him. It’s softer there than her face, warmer too. His touch is tentative at first; their lips are still locked as he carefully puts his whole hand under her shirt, spreading his fingers wide on the heated skin of her back. It’s impossible to think about cold, bloated skin when her skin is so nice and warm and his fingers slide higher, pushing her shirt up further and further until they graze the fabric that’s wound around her breasts and it is even easier then, when he palms her with the fabric between them, but Inej lets out a quiet whimper and breaks away from his lips.

“More,” she murmurs and he leans back, hands still under her shirt but he lifts them higher, like he has imagined himself doing so, so often and she sits upright, raising her arms so he can take her shirt off.

This part is nothing new; he has seen her like this before. Or at least almost like this, back in the steaming bathroom, where his lips have touched her skin for the very first time, she had worn a vest too. But now he lets his eyes roam over her bare stomach, her shoulders, her arms and he wants to touch. He shifts involuntarily, trying to relief some of the tension in his pants but he only manages to arouse himself further.

Inej isn’t helping as she, her eyes still fixed on him, starts to unravel the fabric across her breasts. When the last wrap falls to the bed her face is covered by the prettiest blush and she is more beautiful than ever. He stares at her, his mouth slightly agape, eyes roaming uncontrollably, not knowing where to look first. The supple curve of her breasts, the way her dark nipples are protruding a little, maybe from the cold, maybe because of him, the way her chest is heaving slightly, the way her collar bones look like the perfect spot to put his mark on her or the way she looks at him, eyes dark and inviting.

He would like to tell her that she’s the most beautiful thing he has ever seen, but he’s Kaz Brekker and Kaz Brekker doesn’t say those things. In another life, a life in which Jordie didn’t die and they would have met under different circumstances he would have told her, probably the moment he met her.

But he doesn’t, he stays silent but he lets his expression soften noticeably and he knows that she notices mostly because she scoots back as far on his bed as she can and lays down, head on his pillows, reaching her hands out towards him. He entwines their fingers without thinking and joins her on his bed, hovering above her, legs spread a little so her lithe form fits between them and he’s caging her in. He leans down, searching her eyes for any sign of discomfort and when he sees only fondness and need he leans in the rest of the way and kisses her again, his eyes falling shut as he hands himself over to the sensations that still scare him. But the fear doesn’t overwhelm him, even when her fingers draw circles on his hands, even when she raises her hips and arches them into his, even when, while doing so, her stomach brushes along his naked abdomen for a moment. His mind is too occupied by how good her hips feel against his and he rolls them forward in reply, her mouth falling open underneath his and her moan is swallowed by his lips.

Withdrawing, he stares down at her, his mind a haze of lust and want and need and Inej is everything, so, fingers still interlaced, he drags his lips from her mouth to her cheek to her jaw line, trailing kisses down the heated flesh of her neck, letting them linger where months ago he had been too afraid to touch, then trailing them further down until they are hovering on her collar bone and he places his open mouth on her skin and sucks carefully, tongue tasting her and she groans, fingers tightening her hold.

“Kaz,” she groans and he pulls his mouth off of her to take a look at the skin that appears to be a little darker already before looking up to shoot her a predatory glance before getting back to work.

He kisses his way down to her breasts, tongue curiously touching the protruding peak and she moans his name again, arching her back, brushing over him again, making him groan. Her skin is a little salty from the sweat that’s forming on it but it’s nothing like the ocean, it’s nothing like he fears it would be and he takes her nipple into his mouth, twirls his tongue, attempting to make her say his name again but it takes the edge of teeth do so and she mutters it over and over until he lifts his head and looks at her again.

Her black braid is spread out on his pillows, a few strands loose, some clinging to her sweaty forehead, her lips parted and kiss swollen, eyes half closed and he will never tire of the way the sunlight makes her brown skin glow golden. She is a sight to behold, his sight to behold and he lets go of one of her hands, kneeling so he won’t crush the hand that’s still holding his with his weight, reaching up to touch her face, thumb brushing tenderly over her cheekbone and she smiles up at him, bright and beautiful, making him feel alive while having him crave for more.

Carefully, as if afraid of ruining the moment, she lifts her hand, runs it over his sleeve, up to his collar and brushing it up so she can touch his neck without actually touching it. Then, slowly, ever so slowly her fingers drift higher, carefully touching his jaw, thumb dragging over his chin, then her fingers cup his face, her touch feather light and barely there and he leans into it, unafraid as long as his eyes hold hers and she moves her hand to the back of his neck, fingers only slightly less heated then his skin and he his grateful for it, not sure if he could bear the touch of cold, clammy fingers now, but they are warm, his skin just as sweaty as her palm so he doesn’t recognize the wetness of it and she leans up while he leans down, lips meeting halfway.

It’s delicious to kiss her like this, slowly, lazily, able to enjoy every single moment of it and he finds himself leaning down again, pressing her back into his mattress, bracing himself partially on his legs, partially on the arm that still holds her hand. When their tongues come into play once more, he lets his hand stray from her face down the slope of her neck, down her waist, fingers briefly brushing the curve of her breast before drawing lower, fingers brushing over her stomach, touching the waistband of her pants but not daring to move any lower; at least not without her explicit permission.

“Touch me, Kaz,” she breathes into his mouth and it’s all the permission he needs.

Shifting his weight so her legs are spread a little wider, one of his knees between them, he lets his finger dip below the waistband of her pants, past her soft curls, further down until they brush over hot, wet skin and for a moment the water starts to rise but Inej bucks into his hand, moans into his mouth and whatever he has been about to think evaporates in a cloud of lust and he moves his hand, fingers dipping into her tight heat, carefully at first, then a little deeper and her hand in his neck tightens, nails scraping lightly, fingers clenching as he makes her writhe beneath him.

Kaz breaks away from her in order to watch her. Her face is twisted in pleasure, eyes shut tightly, mouth open in a silent moan, head tilted back a little and he has no idea what he’s doing but he seems to be doing something right because she keeps pressing back into his fingers, his name falling from her lips over and over again and suddenly he feels overwhelmed for a whole different reason. This beautiful creature right beneath him wants him, cracks and monsters and all, loves him even and he loves her and it seems impossible but yet here they are.

He leans back a little so he can change the angle of his hand, two fingers pushing in and out of her in time with the rocking of her hips and he cards his thumb through her curls, searching for that bundle of nerves he has heard the more experienced boys talk about a few years back and when he finds it her eyes snap open, their gazes lock and she gasps his name, clenching and unclenching around his fingers, hand curling tightly in his neck, fingers holding on to his firmly and this is everything.

Tugging his hand out of her pants he leans down and kisses her again, hungrier this time, his own need not satisfied yet but she doesn’t move to touch him for the moment and he is grateful for it. When he breaks away from her and slowly opens his eyes, hers are still wide and dark and filled with desire but the need is gone for now. Her hand drops to the mattress and a lazy grin forms on her lips. Kaz leans back until he’s kneeling on the bed, his pants so tight it actually hurts a little and Inej sits up too, eyes fixed on the tent in his pants.

“Can I?” she asks, biting down on her kiss swollen lips and heavens, he wants her to.

But he shakes his head, hand letting go of hers so he can scratch his neck, a little embarrassed.

“It’s enough for today. I don’t need- I can’t-“, he doesn’t finish his sentence but she still nods understandingly.

He kind of despises himself in that moment. It’s just that his mind is still so clouded by lust that it’s hard to think straight, especially with her still half naked beneath him and the memory of her wetness, her tightness still fresh in his mind. But he also remembers how long it has taken him to be able to touch himself and how he has recoiled from her touches before and even though he knows he’s stronger now, braver now, he’s afraid it might not be enough and he doesn’t want to see the heartbroken look on her face when he has to push her away because he can’t bear her touch. It seems a little ironic to him that he is so willing to give and give and give and yet is still unable to take anything for himself except tentative fingers that ghost over his face and neck.

“You can…” she pauses, cheeks turning darker again and he watches her curiously, one eyebrow slightly raised. “I can go if you want me to, then you can finish yourself,” she finishes, glancing away.

Out of the corner of her eye she’s looking at him carefully, her torso propped up on her elbows, eyes taking in every little emotion that might cross his face. He lets her see all of them.

Then, his eyes still on her, he carefully starts to unbutton his pants. She shifts, raising herself up further until she’s almost sitting on his bed, ready to leave the second he tells her to. And while he’s too afraid to let her touch him right now he can offer her this.

“Stay,” he says, voice low, gravel and stone and desire and she lets out a soft whimper when he pushes his pants down the rest of the way, freeing himself from the restraining fabric.

A low growl escapes his throat and he leans back a little, bracing himself on one arm and she’s watching him, taking all of him in and her eyes linger on the lower half of his body, where his hand is slowly stroking up and down, finger brushing over the tip every now and then and just her presence is enough to push him to the edge quickly. He picks up the pace at which he strokes himself, suddenly hit by the thought that he uses the same hand he has used before to get Inej off to do the same to him now and the thought hits him hard. She keens the same moment he groans and he comes all over his chest, his hand, the sheets. Release has never tasted sweeter.

Their breath is coming in hard irregular pants, their eyes are still locked and when Inej leans forward and kisses him softly, a pleasant shudder runs down his back.

“That was quite a sight,” she breathes against his lips and he’s relaxed and deliriously happy so he lets the smile take over his face, lets her eyes take it in. She mirrors his expression, one finger carefully trailing his lips. “That also is one.”

They kiss again, a little longer this time and when they separate Inej gets out of bed, reaches for her bindings and starts to wrap them around her chest again. Kaz watches her, both sad and relieved to see her skin covered up again. Wiping his hand on the shirt he’d have to change out of anyway he tugs himself back into his pants, buttoning them up with deft, quick fingers.

“Soon.” Her head whirls around to look at him. “Soon you’ll be able to touch me.” He makes it sound like a promise. By the way her eyes light up as she finishes her bindings and pulls her shirt over her head, he knows she understands.

“I’m looking forward to it,” she says and departs with another smile, leaving Kaz behind still sitting on the bed.

His heart is pounding, his shirt and sheet and pants a mess. He has work to do and briefings to attend, jobs to plan.

And he has never been happier.

~~~~~~

Kaz’ next job takes him to the streets of Ketterdam and he can feel her following him on the roofs. She’s silent and invisible to everyone but him and it has always been that way, what happened two days before doesn’t change that. Not in the slightest – except every now and then Kaz thinks of the way her eyes had snapped open and she had moaned his name when she came undone, thinks of the little keen she had let out when he had come and it’s fine, really it is, he just has to shuffle and adjust a little more than normally and even being Dirtyhands doesn’t block out all the thoughts and it’s dangerous, he has to stop thinking about her, he doesn’t have a death wish.

So really, when a man seemingly attacks him out of nowhere he only has himself to blame. He quickly manages to assess the situation though, discovers two more attackers, discovers the tattoos on their arms that mark them as Razor Gulls and faintly remembers that he might have ruined one or two heists they had planned and he actually would have remembered to be on guard because of that, had he not been distracted by Inej. The way things are a fist collides with his face and makes a few bells sound in his head.

But oh well, he didn’t have a real fight in quite some time, most gangs too careful to attack him directly and beating someone into a bloody pulp doesn’t qualify as a fight so he resists the ridiculous urge to crack his knuckles like Jesper would have done and raises his cane instead. He sends it crashing down into the first attacker’s foot and quickly takes a step to the side, sending the other one into the first, the third currently blocked by his two comrades.

It’s kind of pathetic really; they obviously didn’t expect a cripple to fight back so now that Kaz does they are slightly put off and he gives them a minute to catch themselves. When they eventually turn towards him they all have varying degrees of murder in their eyes and a sinister smile makes his way to his lips as he tosses his crane aside before he heads straight into a fist fight.

In the end he gains another fist in his face that splits his lower lip, a kick in the gut that has him coughing a little and in the uncoordinated mess they made somebody managed to stomp down on his foot pretty hard but he remains standing while his opponents end up lying unconscious on the street.

When he walks away from them he has to suppress the urge to smile because he feels rather than sees or hears Inej joining him and the happiness from yesterday is still clinging to him persistently. He should probably mind but he doesn’t. Not yet anyway.

“That was dumb,” she tells him, a reprimand in her voice.

“I let my guard down. That won’t happen again.”

She eyes him a little suspiciously but he only gives her his sharp as a knife smile and she rolls her eyes in return.

“Why do the Razor Gulls want to kill you?”

“I might have caused them to lose some money.”

“How much exactly?”

He laughs lowly at that; money something that both, Dirtyhands and Kaz Brekker love.

“A few thousand kruge. Maybe about forty thousand.”

Inej gapes at him in disbelief.

“And then you walk down the streets on your own? You could have been killed!” she exclaims and she sounds so affronted that Kaz can’t help but to be amused by it.

“I can hold my own in a fight,” he reminds her, thinking about how he took over the Dregs. By the sideway glance he gives her he can tell that she does too.

“I know that,” she mutters. “But still you should take better care of yourself.”

“You sound like you’re worried.”

This time she does glare at him and even shoves him a little by bumping her shoulder forcefully into his.

“I just don’t want you dying on me before you can finish what you started.” He turns his head at that and takes in the way she pointedly doesn’t look at him, how her ears are a little red and he raises an eyebrow at her when she turns to face him again. “No need to be so smug about it.”

But he is. And he might shuffle a little closer and lets his gloved hand brush hers once and then twice until she intertwines their fingers with a roll of her eyes and a twitch of her lips, holding on as they walk down the streets of Ketterdam.

“You’re something I want, Wraith,” he says eventually, his tone all business like. “And I don’t stop until I have what I want.”

“That could have sounded romantic.”

“It’s a fact.”

She hums and squeezes his hand.

~~~~~~

One of the best things about being with Inej is that she is more than capable of taking care of herself. He doesn’t have to protect her any more than any other member of the Dregs, even when it becomes common knowledge that Dirtyhands and the Wraith are involved with each other.

Word travels fast in Ketterdam so Kaz can’t say he is surprised when people know about them. He is surprised, however, that they make their involvement out to be some great alliance between the Bastard of the Barrel and the Captain of the feared slave hunting Wraith. It amuses him a little that people really think that things between them are just professional business, two players forming an alliance in order to win the big game instead of two people being in love.

But being in love is a very human emotion and somehow Kaz is really grateful that everyone thinks of him as the big bad monster that only thinks about business and has no feelings above greed and cravings for vengeance. It makes it easier to walk down the street side by side with Inej or visit the Van Eck Mansion where she is staying for the time being.

They don’t see each other every day; Kaz still has a gang to run and Inej is busy preparing for her departure that comes closer and closer with each passing hour but they still manage, even if it’s just stolen moments like this one.

Kaz is supposed to meet a client in half an hour and Inej told him a few days ago that today she actually has to get to her ship because a few potentially new crew mates are waiting for her estimation there but he can still feel her following him on the roofs and when he reaches a street junction he slips into a dark side alley as if that has been his destination anyway and arrives just in time to see her step out of the shadows, a ghost that suddenly becomes real.

“Shouldn’t you be elsewhere, Wraith?”

“Shouldn’t you be on your way to a meeting, Dirtyhands?”

And then their hands are interlacing and they sink back into the shadows, their lips finding each other effortlessly and if this is what it is to feel like after not seeing her for a few days he doesn’t want to know what it will be like when she’s gone again because he has already been missing her while she’s still in the same city.

But then again, he has always missed her when she was gone, this time is only going to be different because their relationship is on a very different, more physical level now than it was only weeks ago.

Inej sighs into his mouth when he sinks his teeth into her lower lip, like he has been wanting to do ever since he has allowed himself to think about kissing her and it’s everything he imagined it to be and then some and he breaks away from her lips to look at her, tempted to rest their foreheads together but it’s drizzling and cold and he fears that the touch of skin on skin would only wake up resting demons so he doesn’t.

Her eyes are still closed and there is a slight frown marring her forehead and he lets go of one of her hands to brush over the wrinkled skin, trying to ease it away but her frown only deepens. She slowly blinks her eyes open and stares at him for a long, long moment, eyes traveling his face as if trying to memorize his every feature.

“I’m going to miss you, Kaz,” she finally says, so softly, he barely hears her but her words are like honey for his soul and he wants to tell her I’m going to miss you too, so much but he doesn’t.

Instead he kisses her again, one hand cradling her face while the other slips around her waist and presses into her lower back, her arms winding around his neck, both of them holding on, holding close.

“Did you hear what they say about us?” he finally whispers against her lips when they separate again, faces merely inches apart.

“I heard all of it. I’m the Wraith, Kaz, there’s not much I don’t hear.”

“So you heard about the Wraith and the monster that try to take over the world together?”

“It’s one of my favorite things they say. It has a certain ring to it, don’t you think?” she asks and he smiles, leaning into her again, his smile touching hers briefly.

“I think they give us too much credit. We should start smaller; take over the True Sea first before trying to take on the world.”

“I’m working on it.”

“Rumor has it that Slavers tremble with fear when they hear of you and your crew.”

Her grip around his neck tightens and she pulls him into her again, her grin wide against his lips before melting into the kiss.

“If you keep talking sweet nothings to me I might have to stop by tonight.”

“Who says that wasn’t my plan all along?” he replies teasingly and her nose brushes against his, cold and wet but his isn’t any warmer so it doesn’t really bother him. He finds that there is very little that bothers him about touching Inej anymore.

“You really always have a hidden agenda, don’t you?”

Boldly he rolls his hips against hers, making her release a stuttering breath as she feels him hard against her through all their clothes.

“I wouldn’t say it’s hidden.”

Inej laughs into his mouth, hitting him lightly on the shoulder and his heart feels like it’s about to explode from happiness.

~~~~~~

True to her word Inej slips into his room later that night, smiling as she sees him splayed out on the bed, a book in his bare hands that he hasn’t really been reading, vest off, collar of his shirt already popped open.

“Any new additions to your crew?” he asks, sitting up as she takes a seat on his bed.

“Two actually,” she pauses and he patiently waits for her to continue, even if the way she brushes her hair behind her ear makes him want to reach out and touch her. “Two of the girls we freed.”

“You accept children into your crew?”

It surprises him a little, if he’s being honest.

“They are two of the older ones we saved. They are only a year younger than me when I first came here, they both have a few scores to settle and if I can help them do it…”

She shrugs as if it’s nothing but he sees the way her eyes light up, knows that this is exactly why she set out to sail the sea in the first place and he feels the strangest rush of pride as he looks at her and finds himself unable to stop looking. After everything she’s still so good and she deserves the world, yet she settles for him. He reaches out to cup her cheeks, pull her close but the moment his fingers touch her skin he flinches back as if he burned himself, cradling his hand against his chest, curling himself into the corner where his bed meets the wall, staring at her with wide eyes and she stares right back surprised, a little hurt even.

Her skin had been cold and wet not warm and dry and it’s too much, it’s completely unexpected because she has always been warm so far and he presses his eyes shut, tries to control his breathing but only manages to panic further. She feels like Jordie has felt and the combination of the memory of dead flesh and Inej feeling like this kicks loose a whole new dread and the image in front of his eyes changes, Jordie becomes Inej and they’re dead, dead-

“Kaz! Kaz, look at me!” the voice is demanding, the fingers that curl around his wrists warm through the fabric of his shirt and he slams right back into reality, his breathing ragged, skin clammy, heart hammering unpleasantly in his chest.

“Inej,” he croaks and he feels so young and helpless, so set back in his progress, frustrated, still panicked and he hates himself for being unable to handle it.

His throat is dry and he almost feels like he’s about to cry but he hasn’t cried since Jordie’s death and he certainly won’t cry now but the image of Inej being in Jordie’s place is almost too much for him to handle, the only thing anchoring him to the here and now Inej’s warmth and the soothing tone of her voice as she assures him over and over that he’s here, he’s alright, he’s alright.

When he finally manages to get his breathing back under control and feels his panic recede, he finds her curious, worried gaze on him and it’s time for him to tell her, she deserves to know, deserves this because he can’t give her the world yet; so he settles down next to her, on the edge of his bed, feet touching the ground, arms braced on his legs.

“I’m sorry,” he tells her quietly and before she can open her mouth and ask what just happened he tells her everything.

He tells her about Jordie, how he became a member of the Dregs, why the feeling of skin on skin is too much and when he’s done he feels like crying again, completely exhausted but also like a weight has been lifted that he’s carried around for far too long and maybe people are right when they say that misery loves company.

She listens quietly the entire time, taking in everything that makes him him, takes it in in stride, as if she already knew part of the puzzle and is now finally completing it.

“I’m glad you told me,” she finally says and looks at him, her eyes warm and soft and she reaches out a hand, leaving it up to him to take it or not.

He takes it.

Her fingers are warm and comforting and familiar and this really isn’t bad.

“You deserve better than me,” he tells her quietly and the glare she gives him is enough to send most men running. Not him though, he only squeezes her hand a little tighter. “It’s true.”

Her glare slowly morphs into an assessing gaze and her eyes roam his face, looking for something she only finds after a while. He feels naked under her eyes, stripped of every little shred of armor.

“But I don’t want anyone but you,” she replies, just as quietly, fingers tightening.

Inej deserves the world and yet, somehow, she still wants him; a monster made out of the damaged goods that once had been a boy. When he looks at her again his fear fades and his thoughts slow and he starts to want again.

“I’m too selfish to give you up anyway.”

His voice is firm, steady and when she returns his gaze he reaches his free hand out, fingertips carefully brushing her skin to make sure it feels like her skin again, and it does, warm and soft and he cups her face, leaning in. Her hand comes up to settle over his wrist and her face shows relief and reassurance.

“I’m glad.”

Their foreheads touch and they remain like that for a little while before he slowly lets himself sink back onto his bed sideways, tugging her with him softly, until both their heads lie on his pillow bodies angled a little awkwardly, so they rearrange themselves. One of his hands is still on her face, thumb brushing over her cheekbone, her fingers dancing over his wrists but the other lets go of hers as he turns a little so he’s laying on his side, watching her do the same before he settles his hand on the curve of her waist. Her hand moves too, also settling on his wrist, wrapping around it like she’s holding onto him and it’s warm and comfortable and late and he’s emotionally exhausted, feeling like he’d only have to close his eyes to fall asleep, with her right next to him.

“I think I could sleep like this,” he murmurs and they are so close that when she hums her approval he can feel her exhale on his face.

“I can leave,” she offers but she’s already closing her eyes, snuggling a little closer, not touching yet but close enough that he can feel the heat radiating off of her body. He allows his eyes to close and his head to tilt, their foreheads to touch.

“No. Stay.”

~~~~~~

When he opens his eyes in the morning he is greeted by Inej’s warm gaze. It is an exceptionally nice thing to wake up to, especially when the other sensations start to settle in; her hands, both of them, curled around his wrist, his fingers resting against her cheek, their breath intermingling because of how close their faces are.

It’s everything he has ever wanted and never allowed himself to have and the upturn of his lips is beyond his control, her returning smile tender and affectionate and this isn’t some dream, it’s real and he wishes, for a brief moment, that they could always wake up like this. Together, unworried, happy.

“I like this.”

Her voice is lower than usual, the honey in it richer, sweeter and yes, he really wouldn’t mind waking up like this more often. He hums in agreement before adjusting his body a little, scooting closer until her knees touch his thighs and he watches how she swallows, feels the slight tremor that goes through her, the barely noticeable tightening of her hands. Anyone else might have missed it, the way she responds to him, but he is so attuned to her, always so enraptured by her that he notices everything, especially when she shifts a little, pressing a little closer to him.

They remain like this for a long time, watching each other, touching each other, sunlight heating their bodies pleasantly. Her hair is a little ruffled, strands of it falling out of her braid and onto her shoulders, covered by the fabric of her shirt and he wants to move it out of the way, wants to see how her open hair would look against her bare skin and again his body reacts on its own volition, hand reaching out to twist one of her loose strands around his fingers before reaching a little further, fingers trailing along her braid to its end. He has always been good at a sleight of hand and unwinding the tie that holds her hair together at its tip is as simple as picking a pocket and unbraiding it is even easier.

He loves the unruly, thick texture of it, enjoys the way his fingers easily card through it and he can hear her breath hitching when he places his hand on her cheek, a few single tresses still clinging to his fingers, and leans in the rest of the way, their lips touching softly. One of Inej’s hands almost moves instantly, wrapping around his other wrist and she holds onto him again, arching her back a little so their abdomens touch and he wants her out of her shirt, wants to see her hair against her skin, wants to cup one of her breasts again, to hear and feel her whimper against his lips once more; instead he simply reaches for her waist again, low this time, his hand pushing her shirt up a little as it moves higher on her waist and his hand goes for the sliver of bare skin right away, touching the warm softness of it before slipping beneath her shirt, higher, always higher, searching for her bindings but he only meets naked skin, even touches the curve of her breast before he breaks away from her lips to look at her, one eyebrow raised in a silent question. The hand, that has settled on his bicep, right where the R is tattooed on his skin, squeezes a little, a smile tugging at her lips.

“I thought last night would go a little differently,” she says with a shrug before tilting her head a little so their lips brush again. “Not that I mind the way it went.”

Loosing himself to the feeling of her lips on his is easy, almost as easy as letting his hand move from her side to her ribs, fingertips brushing the underside of her breast before moving up and cupping it. Her soft skin feels good on his palm and he squeezes a little, causing her to gasp into his mouth before settling lower again, thumb brushing over her nipple teasingly and she arches into him more insistently, rocking her hips into his, creating a little bit of friction that briefly makes his mind go blank. Her hands wander from his wrist, his shoulder to his chest, fingers toying with the buttons of his shirt.

“Can I?” she asks quietly, looking at him with dark eyes, voice husky and tinged by desire.

“Please,” he murmurs against her lips.

Inej has always had nimble fingers but yet he is still surprised when she opens his shirt almost as swiftly as himself. He sits up so she can push the garment past his shoulders and with a flick of his wrist the piece of clothing finds its way to the floor. Before she can lean back he reaches for the hem of her shirt and she groans a little, raising her arms so he can easily tug it off of her. He lets his eyes roam over her upper body again, fascinated and aroused and he scoots backwards on his bed until his back it against the wall, her eyes curiously following his every move. He reaches out again, taking a hold of her wrists and when he pulls a little she gets it right away, settling in his lap without shyness, without hesitation and he knows that she can see the admiration in his eyes, the way he feels about her.

His hands still around her wrists he lifts them, puts them high on his chest, close to his heart and he watches how her lips part slightly as she feels his rapid heartbeat right underneath her palm. He places his hands on her naked hips and lets his whole body arch into hers, lips capturing hers in a searing kiss as he rocks his hips upwards, erection grinding against her center and she moans into his mouth, returning his kiss with equal favor, as he rocks his hips into her, as she grinds her hips down, meeting him halfway and it feels so good, so so good and then her fingers brush over his collar bones, over his shoulders, down his arms, tracing the lines of his tattoos and her hands are warm and it still feels good, even when her fingers move over the corded muscle of his abdomen, muscles flexing when her hands move down, resting on the V of his hips for a moment, before moving back up to rest on his heaving chest.

They break apart, both of them panting heavily and his gaze drops to her kiss swollen lips, to the uneven rise and fall of her chest, linger on the way her hair dances across her skin, back to her eyes and she meets his gaze evenly, rocking her hips leisurely into his, making him growl low in his throat, his hand tightening on her hips.

“Tell me, when it’s too much.”

“You too,” he barely manages to choke out before her lips are trailing along his jaw, down his neck, following the path her hands took only moments ago.

He’s unable to hold back a moan when she sucks on the skin above his collar bone, marking the same spot he had marked days before, before continuing their way down, across the plains of his chest, over his stomach, down to his jutting hipbones and she’s on all fours now, backside in the air and the way she looks at him is almost too much, his hips roll up involuntarily and she tilts her head to the side, teeth sunken into her lower lip, fingers toying with the waistband of his pants and he barely manages to nod at her, hands curling in his sheets.

He lifts his hips to help her pull his pants down, gasping when he’s finally freed of the restricting piece of clothing, groaning when her lips trail further down, fingers dancing along his thighs and then her mouth is there licking a strip along his length and he can’t think, her lips soft, her mouth warm and wet and curious and he’s really glad he’s sitting already because his legs surely wouldn’t hold him upright any longer.

Of course he has imagined this. He has overheard a few things the boys bragged about in bars, has heard that it’s supposed to be a lot better than a mere hand but his hand has already felt this good and this; this is heaven.

It doesn’t take long before she has him on the edge and he barely manages to warn her – all he can do is grunt and curl a hand in her hair but she doesn’t stop, actually keeps going, mouth hot and wet and he’s falling, spurting down her throat and he can feel her swallow around him, fingers twitching in her hair.

When she finally releases him with a wet popping sound that sends shivers down his spine, she is grinning at him with a toothy smile, completely satisfied, even though he hasn’t done anything to please her – faintly he realizes that maybe it is because she has managed to do this, has beaten her own demons but it’s a fleeting thought that passes quickly, his mind too hazy to focus on anything but her.

“I’ve wanted to do that for quite some time now,” Inej tells him as she leans up to him, pecking him on the cheek sweetly.

She settles down next to him, legs curling into him, head resting on his shoulder, her hair tickling his bare skin and it still feels good, he doesn’t feel like running, actually more like laying down with her curled into him and staying like that for the rest of his life but the day has just started and they both have places to go and things to do and people to meet so they can’t really do that. But they can take this moment and make it their own.

Kaz lazily wraps an arm around her, fingers toying with her hair which might be his new favorite thing to do and Inej lets out a hum of content.

“I really liked that,” he tells her, his voice low and quiet.

“Me too,” she murmurs against him, eyes closed, nose nuzzling his neck affectionately and her breathing caresses his skin, sending some more shivers down his spine and he presses a kiss to her forehead without thinking twice about it. “Doesn’t make as much of a mess as when you do it.” She sounds so serious that it takes him completely by surprise, coaxing a chuckle out of him and she turns her head to look at his smiling face, her eyes wide with wonder and love and he really hopes she can read the same feelings in his eyes because he is overwhelmed by them right now. “I love your smile.”

And I love you. He thinks it but doesn’t say it, only smiles a little wider, a little warmer and enjoys the way she’s leaning into him; raveling in the fact that they are both naked from the waist up and touching and he doesn’t feel sick, doesn’t want to run, not from this, not from Inej.

“I’ll be there tonight,” he finally says, breaking the comfortable silence they have settled in.

“Good,” she murmurs. They fall silent again but this time the silence is interrupted by noise from downstairs, by a house waking up and Inej sighs. “I should go.”

He hums in agreement, but instead of letting go he pulls her closer for a moment, capturing her lips once more. And he drags the kiss out, knowing that it might be the last time before they won’t see each other for months.

Kaz watches her as she gathers her shirt from the ground and pulls it on, watches as she heads to the window and opens it, only turning back to him when she’s already perched on the window sill.

“See you tonight.”

~~~~~~

The farewell is bittersweet and Jesper and Wylan are there too so they don’t kiss that evening.

But there is a hug with lingering touches, fingers resting against faces and exposed necks, hushed words that promise a reunion that is not too far off in the future and while Kaz doesn’t exactly want to let her go he knows that it’s what she wants – she wants to be back on her ship, with her crew, answering to her calling – and he is not selfish enough to deny her that.

So he holds her in his arms too long for it to be simply friendly and when he lets go off her she gently squeezes his hand before getting on her ship and sailing off into the night.

When he turns to go he is greeted by the sight of the merchling and his former second, both of them with matching grins on their faces even if it only looks soft and almost proud on Wylan’s face while Jesper makes it look like the cat ate the canary and managed to find a bowl of cream on top of it.

“Don’t,” Kaz says, devoid of all emotions even though he can feel a slight tickle of joy in his chest.

“By your standards you were practically making out!” Jesper still says cheerfully and from the corner of his eyes Kaz watches Wylan squeeze his eyes shut, a blush already creeping up his cheeks. “Does that mean next time we get to see the two of you even more intimate? Because I’d be totally into that.”

Jesper’s grin is broad and comfortable and the boy beside him buries his face in his hands, completely embarrassed. Kaz only stares at him before he starts walking again, back toward the Slat.

“That would cost you more than you have,” he tosses over his shoulder nonchalantly and Wylan groans while Jesper just laughs.

It’s a nice feeling, to make his friends laugh, to have friends, but he doesn’t dwell on it; even if the smile on his lips stays there for the rest of his way back.

~~~~~~

To say Kaz is surprised when Wylan shows up at the Slat is an understatement. But about a month after Inej has set out to hunt down some more slavers the red haired merchling stands in the doorstep of his office, shuffling around awkwardly for a moment before Kaz arches an eyebrow at him in. The silent request is enough to make him enter the room and shut the door behind him.

“What's business?” Kaz asks, eyes fixed on the merchling's face, trying to figure out why he's here before he can tell him.

“I got a job for you.”

This time he doesn't manage to keep the surprise of his face; can't stop one of his eyebrows from arching, though he does keep himself from blurting out “you?”. Instead he leans back in his chair and crosses his arms.

“What job?”

Wylan scratches his neck, blue eyes shifting nervously. For a moment Kaz wonders where Jesper is, if the sharpshooter even knows he's here. But he quickly dismisses the thought; it's of no importance to him. Kaz thinks maybe he has to push the other guy to tell him why he's here but then Wylan takes in a deep breath, squares his shoulders and straightens his back, all shyness and nervousness suddenly replaced by bitter determination.

“There's someone who deserves to be tortured and killed and I know someone who is more than willing to pay for that to happen.”

Now both his eyebrows are drawn up in surprise and he takes in the exact way Wylan's shoulders are set, sees the hidden fury beneath his determination and wonders what could have caused the young merchant to be this angry. The last time he looked like that, he had just found out what his father did to his mother and as far as Kaz knows - and he knows almost everything - Wylan doesn't have any other family that could be locked away somewhere. And if something had happened to Jesper - a thought that does cross his mind hastily though is just as quickly discarded - Wylan's whole attitude would have been different.

Where Kaz had reacted with false nonchalance and detachment Wylan would have most likely been an angry, bawling, desperate mess if the man he loved had been taken or if something even worse happened to him.

“And just who would that be?” Kaz asks, leaning forward again, elbows on the table, fingers crossed under his chin.

“One of the doctors at the asylum. She didn't- Do anything to my mother but a lot of other patients died under mysterious circumstanced under her care. And- and I know of a girl who was in her right mind but was tortured into madness before she killed herself.”

“How do you know that this is what really happened and not just some flight of fancy someone made you try to believe?”

A muscle ticks in Wylan's jaw and his eyebrows draw together, nostrils flaring a little. Apparently he doesn't like to be belittled.

“Because I know the woman who visited her. And she wouldn't lie about that. Never. Not when it's about Sofi.”

Something about the way he says that makes Kaz realize that this woman, this mysterious possible investor, must have loved the dead girl. And with Wylan being the way he is - caring and too soft-hearted for a life in the barrel - it also explains why he is so upset about what has happened.

“You do realize that I'm no assassin.”

Wylan clenches his jaw again before he takes a step closer; eyes ablaze with wrath.

“If I wanted an assassin I would have gone to Jesper. She deserves to be dead, yes, but she also deserves to be tormented first, just like she has tormented her patients. I feel like that's something you and the Dregs would excel at, especially when the price is right.”

Clever merchling, knowing perfectly well which strings to pull to peak his interest further.

“Just how much are we talking about?” he inquires, face carefully indifferent.

“I guess I can't try to appeal to your sense of righteousness?” Kaz actually sneers a little at that and Wylan rolls his eyes, sighing softly. “Of course not, that sense is on the sea with Inej.” That remark actually stings a little, sends a fresh jolt of longing right to his heart, but not nearly enough to make him change his mind. “My friend is willing to pay a ridiculous huge amount to make that doctor suffer as much as Sofi has.”

It sounds promising but right now it's barely more than a lot of thin air.

“How much, Van Eck?” Kaz repeats, adding a little harshness to his voice to make him give his game away but apart from a flinch at his family name Wylan doesn't go for it.

His time in business has toughened him up a little or so it seems. For all Kaz knows Wylan could be holding on to a mask.

“A lot, Brekker.”

Realizing that apart from pushing further - which he is a little too intrigued to do, since it’s Wylan standing in front of him - there's not much he can do so he just taps his thumbs against his chin, letting a few seconds pass.

“I may know a guy who would be perfect for the job,” he finally says and catches the relieved exhale Wylan lets out with an amused glance. “Who exactly is this constituent?”

The merchling tenses back up at that, meeting his gaze defiantly.

“I think that's for me to know and for you to find out.”

“Grown some backbone all of a sudden?”

“She's my friend, Kaz. I'm not just gonna give up her name to you without knowing if you're actually going to take the job. She's lost so much already; she doesn't need her reputation to be added to that list.”

Kaz blinks surprised at that, wondering for a fleeting moment if Wylan would defend him like that too; if he even considers him to be his friend. But then again, Wylan is talking to Dirtyhands, the business man, the bastard if the barrel and Dirtyhands doesn't have friends, he has allies; at the most.

“You realize if I take the job you will have to tell me,” he says coolly.

Wylan shoves his hands in his pockets and sways a little on the balls of his feet, his face carefully blank for a few heartbeats, before he – just as carefully, just as deliberately – arches a single eyebrow.

“Are you?”

“Let me think about it and get back to you tomorrow evening. That is, if the dinner invitation still stands?”

The merchling actually has the decency to look affronted at that.

“Of course it does!” he exclaims a little too vigorously to be causal, causing a smile to tug at Kaz’ lips.

So yes, he thinks, Wylan Van Eck does think of him as a friend, which is kind of nice to know.

“Then I will inform you of my decision tomorrow,” he says.

With a curt nod Wylan turns around and leaves a bit too over-hastily, but Kaz doesn’t mind, he has some scheming to do.

~~~~~~

Of course he takes the job. The payment is ridiculously good - two million kruge are a perfectly acceptable sum - and if Kaz understands something it is the thirst for revenge and Fenna Van de Meer is basically dying of thirst.

Fenna is the eldest of the four daughters of the Merchant Council member Vincent Van de Meer and as such is expected to marry and let her husband take over the family business once her father dies. Except she has no interest in men and therefore in the marriage her father has arranged.

When 'daddy dearest', as Fenna calls him, venom lacing her voice, discovered that her disinterest in men stems from her interest in women - he apparently stumbled across her and her servant and friend Sofi in a very compromising position; he didn't exactly take it well. His hands were bound when it came to his daughter - harming or disinheriting her would reflect very badly on the family name, so that was off the plate right away - but he could punish the servant girl who had 'defiled' his daughter; so he had her sent to the asylum to 'cure' her of her 'sickness', knowing fully well of the horrifying rumors surrounding the doctor. 

Fenna had been confined to their house for nearly two months and when she had finally managed to sneak away and visit the asylum the girl she had found had been broken in spirit and body, there was no trace left of the woman she loved. Her will to live was gone, the light in her eyes; gone, the rosy flush in her cheeks that had highlighted her freckles; gone. They had completely shattered Sofi and in doing so they had also broken Fenna.

Her father had been waiting for her when she had gotten home, making it painfully clear that the only reason she had gotten away in the first place was because he had let her. 

It's like a page right out of Kaz' playbook; something he does to his enemies to break them, sometimes even to his friends to motivate them, like he had done with Wylan, but for a father to do something like that to his own daughter for the sole purpose of punishing her; that is a cruelty that disgusts even him and Dirtyhands is not easily disgusted.

Fenna's tale is filled with fury directed at her father and the woman who tortured her lover, but at the same time every time she mentions Sofi her voice cracks and tears fill her eyes and Wylan's hand finds hers and squeezes, while Jesper, who sits across from them and next to Kaz looks at her with a mix of empathy and anguish, gaze sliding to Wylan every single time only to find him looking back at him already, assuring him he's here and whole and Kaz takes the whole situation in and wonders what he would have done if Van Eck had made good on his threat to break Inej's legs. He supposes Van Eck can consider himself lucky that the only thing Kaz took is his fortune and not a few limbs as well. He would have killed him slowly, painfully; money be damned.

As the merchant daughter's tale comes to a close and she tells him about the asylum staff finding her body one cold morning, mangled but still recognizable from her jump out of the fourth storey, her jaw is clenched, her shoulders set and her whole body shakes with fury and from helplessness. She pauses for a long time and Kaz is almost tempted to think she's done but there's something about the way she holds herself tells him she's not done yet.

"I don't want to take revenge for myself," she says eventually. "I'm taking revenge for Sofi. Because she didn't deserve what happened to her because of how I feel- felt- how we- felt for each other. She deserved the world and just because I thought my father was gone and we- just because of my mistake she's dead now." She falls quiet again, furiously wiping her eyes and even though Kaz is a selfish bastard who, apart from very few carefully selected people, cares about nothing but himself, he understands. "Besides," she continues, a sinister smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. "My father is sick. So sick all the mediks think that a wonder needs to happen for him to recover from it. He already gets what he deserves. But that doctor? She's untouchable. Everybody knows what she's capable of and yet nobody even attempts to stop her. She's evil and she killed Sofi. She needs to be taken off the streets before she can hurt anyone else. And I'm paying you to do that."

"You do realize that you are not paying me to kill her. You pay me to torture her," he still feels necessary to point out and the girl nods grimly.

"Well, you can't really blame me for wanting her to suffer like her victims did. I don't think love is exactly forgiving in its nature; so of course revenge is one of its closest friends. I'm doing this just as much for Sofi as for myself." 

And that is also something Kaz understands all too well. Revenge doesn't bring people back from the dead, it does however give one the satisfaction of having done something about whatever injustice has been done to the person one takes revenge for, if that's for themselves or someone they love. His personal vendetta had not brought Jordie back, but Rollins is gone now, Kaz' purpose fulfilled and now he is finally able to focus on business, jobs, taking over the whole barrel and the people he cares about. Revenge is a closure of sorts and he will help Fenna getting that.

The payment is perfectly acceptable after all and if he just so happens to perfectly understand her motivations it simply serves as an encouragement to do this job even more thoroughly than he has already planned to anyway.

~~~~~~

Apart from the Van de Meer job, which somehow ends with him having gained a very unlikely new ally and sometimes even friend, nothing of great importance happens until Inej returns to Ketterdam bringing the first snow with her.

Sure enough, Kaz is on the brink of taking over the Razor Gulls territory, never one to not hold a grudge. Their attack on him has not been forgotten and has actually given him a sense of purpose that has been missing ever since Pekka Rollins had been out of the picture – and since he is able to touch Inej but there are so many more things he wants to do to her that that sense of purpose has been a constant in his life ever since that day in the bathroom. So when he is not doing jobs he’s counting his money and making up plans on how to take over the Razor Gulls territory, slowly setting them into motion. Some of their new recruits are actually members of the Dregs, not yet tattooed but on his side, slowly convincing the Razor Gulls that Kaz Brekker would be far better leader than who they have right now and it’s working better than he has anticipated so far.

Of course he is not just taking over the Razor Gulls territory out of vengeance. By now Inej has acquired a lot more monikers than just the Wraith. Some of the freed slaves who made their way to Ketterdam call her the Saint of the Sea; a name, he thinks, Inej wouldn’t appreciate because calling herself a saint would come close to blasphemy for her. The slavers call her the Ocean’s Nightmare, sailing far off their usual routes in an attempt to avoid her but she still manages to catch most of them and free their human cargo. His favorite nickname however, is Queen of the True Sea. It’s something the freed slaves whisper in awe, something people call her who have only heard off her but haven’t encountered her. It makes him want to be more than the bastard of the Barrel; makes him want to be her equal in every way; makes him want to be the king to her queen so they can take over the world together. So he’s working on it whenever he finds the time.

However at the moment he is running short on time. The snow keeps falling softly as he rushes through the streets of Ketterdam on his way to the harbor. Kaz has gotten word of the Wraiths arrival almost an hour ago but he couldn’t very well just leave the meeting he was in, so he had waited it out, fingers tapping on the desk he sat at in a motion that people would interpret as businesslike even if it was simply his way to deal with his inner turmoil, with his growing impatience. He had let the people in the room file out the door, had even forced himself to remain in his seat for a few minutes before heading out the window, taking the same route Inej had taken so often to get back to her ship. He makes his way down to the streets far less gracefully than the Wraith and when he finally makes his way down to the docks, his limping a little worse for wear because of the climb and the piercing cold of the weather. But there is nothing that’s holding him back now so he hurries, only slowing down when his eyes finally fall on the elegant ship that’s docked at the port.

As he draws closer the faint voices become louder until he can make out Jesper’s excited shouts, Wylan’s quiet laughter and there, Inej’s soft, amused voice, a little muffled – probably because she is still wrapped up in a group hug – but happy and comforting and home. There’s a smile tugging at the corners’ of his mouth that breaks loose when his eyes fall on the three people hugging a few feet away from the gangplank.

And because Kaz is Kaz he is the first to notice the fourth person that slowly walks down the gangway, followed by a white shadow. Nina looks good; looks almost healed. Her cheeks and nose are a little red from the cold, green eyes brilliant, long hair in a lazy braid that looks like Inej’s doing and there’s a grin on her face that grows broader with each of her steps. When she meets Kaz’ eyes she waves at him enthusiastically, earning a nod and a hint of a smile in return. Her shadow, a big white wolf with a scar on its muzzle, trots right behind her, ears twitching back and forth, taking his surroundings in with far more intellect than a normal animal should possess.

“And what about me? Is nobody happy to see me?” she asks once she’s on solid ground and Kaz is not sure if the squealing comes from Wylan or Jesper but they suddenly let go off Inej and rush over to the Grisha, leaving the Wraith by herself.

Kaz gives himself a moment to take in the sight of the brunette being wrapped up in two pairs of arms before finally, finally looking over at Inej who slowly turns her head away from their reunited friends, meeting his eyes. The wide smile on her face grows soft, becomes warmer, becomes Kaz’ smile and this is what coming home feels like. His breath hitches and he is not sure if it is because he has been missing her for months now or because of the way the snow catches in her hair, white flakes against black ink, but for a moment he thinks she has never been more beautiful. They stare at each other for a long moment neither of them moving but when they do, they move at the same time, she as quietly and as gracefully as ever, him with the awkward thumping of his cane but then she is right in front of him and then his arms are around her and hers are around him and the embrace is tight and warm and this is Inej, Inej, Inej.

“Is this really happening? Somebody pinch me!” They break apart at Nina’s excited shout, glancing over to the trio, their arms still around each other.

It is the first time that neither Jesper nor Wylan look surprised at their display of affection, though Nina’s surprise makes up for their lack of astonishment. Her eyes are wide, hands clasped in front of her in excitement and she looks so happy it is a little ridiculous.

Inej just lets out a laugh, wild and free and Kaz had been about to actually smile at Nina but Inej’s laugh makes him turn his face back to her and he shouldn’t, he really shouldn’t but this is the laugh and his heart is fluttering in his ribcage and she’s still in his arms and he hasn’t seen her for months much less kissed her and it’s reckless and stupid and really, he should have more control of himself but he doesn’t.

Kaz simply takes Inej’s face in his hand and kisses the laugh right of off her lips. He swallows the surprised sound she makes and then her hands travel from his back to his neck, bare fingers brushing through his hair and he shivers but doesn’t flinch away and her lips melt into his. Losing himself in her is as easy now as breathing; lips, teeth and tongue moving in a dance that is still new and yet familiar and Kaz never wants to stop.

They do however break apart, when Jesper lets out a loud whoop that in turn makes Wylan try to shush him which then makes Nina laugh a little too hard and this time they break away from each other completely, Inej with a smile on her lips and even Kaz has to admit that he doesn’t even look close to intimidating right now.

“I never thought I’d actually live to see the day!” Jesper exclaims, looking almost too proud for Kaz liking, but he is a little too happy to care right now so he just rolls his eyes and offers Inej his free hand as the other three slowly start to make their way away from the docks, the white wolf trailing after Nina like a lost puppy.

 “I missed you,” she says quietly before interlacing their fingers together, obviously not expecting an answer.

“I missed you too.”

His words come as a surprise for the both of them, Kaz hadn’t actually intended to blurt them out and yet they had simply made their way past his lips and Inej just looks at him, her eyes wide with surprise, lips slightly parted before they pull into the most dazzling smile and it takes his breath away; the way she looks at him. Glancing towards the others she quickly leans in once more, lips and snow brushing across his lips and he smiles ever so slightly, allowing her inside his armor. They catch up to the others rather quickly after that kiss.

“By the way I told Fenna she can join us for waffles,” Kaz hears Wylan say causally and he has to chuckle at that; Wylan is terrible at mentioning things causally, giving away his true intentions right away.

Nina doesn’t seem to pick up on it however, frowning in confusion, but Inej, with her keen senses and years of experience as the Wraith, picks up on the merchling’s words and Kaz' soft chuckle immediately, raising an eyebrow inquiringly, but Nina beats her to it.

“Who’s Fenna?” she asks and Jesper laughs at that, throwing an arm around the heartrender’s shoulders.

“A friend,” he says, grinning broadly, winking at Wylan over Nina’s head. “I have the feeling you’re going to like her, Nina.”

Kaz actually laughs at that.

~~~~~~