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knives drawn, pistols blazing

Chapter Text

Inej gazed at the vast waters that lay before her.

She was perched precariously at an edge under the bridge, her feet dangling below her, her palms gripping the ledge. No cars would be able to see her, and she was too far away from land for pedestrians to spot her. The only way someone would be able to see her was if they were on the bridge and leaned over to look down. She was all alone, and the only sounds were the zooming of cars above her and the furious winds blowing around her. All she had to do was let go and lean forward a little, and she would be hurtling into the sea.

She breathed the salty smell of the ocean.

Inej has been a dancer all her life. She loved how the music would flow through her body and how she could melt into her movements, like a bird. She envied birds, because of the way they flew into the sky, and how they soared like nothing could ever hold them back. Freedom.

But those moments never last.

 

Life doesn't discriminate

Between the sinners and the saints

It takes, and it takes, and it takes--

 

But she won't live anymore, no. Not when simple physical movements made her want to cry out in pain. Not when the injuries and scars on her reminded her of what has happened. Not when she's so exhausted because it's been several days since she dared to close her eyes for too long, because if she sleeps the nightmares would come chasing after her again--

She didn't have to do this. She could go on with her life. Pretend nothing happened. Find a place to stay instead of sitting under bridges or trees. Get a job, any job, instead of aimlessly roaming around the city. Visit old friends. Make new friends. Start over, and recreate herself. 

It all sounded easy, but it was too much work. Inej was so tired. She did not have the energy to exert herself again. It wasn't worth it. She had nothing to lose. She did not carry any belongings with her, no phone to call for help. She did not want the people she knew to see her like this. 

She heard some loud noises above her, and some shouting. The winds roared louder in her ears, screaming furiously, but it felt like most of them were going on inside her head. She took another deep breath, and sighed. She hoped her saints would forgive her for all she's done.

 

Death doesn't discriminate...

 

She let her hands release the ledge, and felt her body slipping down. She imagined herself flying. Like a bird.

Before she could close her eyes, a gloved hand grabbed her arm and roughly yanked her back.

 

 

Chapter Text

Kaz muttered curse words under his breath. He bought his new car only last week, and already some random person who parked next to him at work got it scratched. Which wasn't really their fault, Kaz was the one who was parked too close to the line. He sighed, and pulled his car to the edge of the road and stopped it. He walked out and examined the back of his car. Only a small scratch. 

He walked to the railing of the bridge. He was on Goedmedbridge, the biggest bridge in Kerch. There had to be at least 200 feet in distance between it and the sea below. A pretty decent way to jump to your death, he thought.

He leaned against the railing and stared into the horizon, his cane dangling on his thigh. Today was the first day in weeks that he didn't have a ton of work to see to at home. His useless boss piled endless amounts of paperwork on him and barely did anything himself. He practically did most of his boss's job for him. And that gave Kaz superiority in the office, even if Mr. Haskell made his blood boil with irritation. Despite being younger and less experienced than everyone else, Kaz was the real boss, and his coworkers knew that. No one hesitated to follow his orders.

His phone buzzed. He dug it out of his pocket, and sighed. Fahey. A coworker who for some stupid reason ended up being his neighbor. 

"What."

"Yo, you wanna hang out for tonight? I'm havin' a party at my place, and everyone in our group's gonna be there. There will be lots of liquor, food, herbal medicine (Kaz could practically feel Jesper's wink through the line), and--"

"Since when do I ever socialize?"

"Exactly!" Jesper exclaimed. "You need to step up your people skills." He smirked. "There's gonna be a lot of women to flirt with."

"I don't like women."

There was a pause, and a laugh. "Well, how come I never realized that?" Jesper laughed. "Of course you don't. In that case, there will also be a lot of men too, so--"

"Don't like men either. I'm not going, I have stuff to do."

"Why not?" Jesper whined. "You can't work all the time, you need to enjoy life sometimes too."

Kaz rolled his eyes. "Also, if you guys get too loud, I'm going to call the cops, and they'll take away your herbal medicine. So keep it down." He heard Jesper make an angry huff, and hung up. Not that he'd ever admit it to anyone, but Jesper was the closest person to him. Not because they were best friends, but because Kaz barely had any other friends.

He returned his attention to the bridge, inspecting it out of curiosity. There were many writings all over it, love promises, sappy quotes, and goodbye notes. There were also combination locks attached to various parts of the bridge. Kaz has considered cracking all of them open and throw them into the ocean a few times.

There was one lock that was placed extremely low, dangling at a low bar on the bridge. Kaz was in the middle of trying to figure out how someone could have placed it there when something in his vision caught his attention. 

A girl. A small Sulli girl, dressed in rags. Even from where he was, he could see the bruises and cuts on her limbs. Her hair was long and tangled.

Kaz has done a lot of dangerous things in his life, but even he would never gamble with his balancing skills like that. She was sitting on the lowest ledge below the bridge , without leaning on anything. If she let go of her grip, she would surely slip and fall. Kaz had a feeling he knew what she was intending to do based on the tension in her arms and the calm expression on her face.

He's heard that Goedmedbridge had an alarmingly high jumping rate. He's heard coworkers talk about a person they knew who ended their lives like this. He's done it before too, and he was really, really close, but it was all a long time ago. But right now, he was a bystander. He's witnessed a few deaths happen before him, but never has he seen someone take their own life by choice. 

Kaz used to be an innocent boy, one who gazed at the world with bright, curious eyes. But ever since Jordie's death, the warmth was sucked out of his body like a vacuum and he regarded people around him coldly, and only a dark glint remained in his eyes. He kept to himself out of consistency.

The girl had nothing with her, and she looked as if she's been living on the streets. She probably had no one to go to. She was a nobody, and no one would even notice if she was gone. Kaz would be the only person to ever know that this happened.

Well? Are you just going to stand there and watch? Jordie's voice in the back of his mind hissed. Are you a total idiot, or are you really going to be the sociopath that everyone calls you?

Kaz gripped his cane and took a step forward. "Hey," he called to the girl. "Hey, you." 

The girl didn't seem to hear him.

Is she deaf or just really good at ignoring people? He walked until he was directly above her, and awkwardly knelt down, inwardly wincing and rubbed his bad leg. "Hey, girl," his voice sounded like a rude snap, "Up here." He banged his cane against the bridge a couple times, making a loud clanging noise.

Again, the girl continued to sit there with her eyes closed, oblivious to all of Kaz's efforts. A small smile played on her lips.

Kaz decided that the girl was deaf. Now how the hell am I supposed to get down there? He might crack his leg again. Or his good leg, and that'll make him even more crippled. He squeezed himself between the bars of the bridge, gripping them so that he wouldn't tumble down. A quick glance at the waters below him sent him uneasy feelings in the stomach, and he averted his eyes to the girl. He was now a less than 6 feet away from her. Kaz considered poking her with his cane, but he didn't want to risk accidentally shoving her to her death, making him the murderer. He put his cane down next to him.

"HEY!!!!" he yelled. He hasn't raised his voice this loud since Jordie's death, and his throat already felt dry.

Then, he heard the girl sigh. She opened her eyes, and shifted her body. She raised her hands from the ledge. 

Fuckingshitthisisreallyhappeningstupidgirl-- Panic seized him and without thinking he lurched forward and his arm shot out, grabbing the girl's right arm and brought her back right when she was about to drop down. The girl's eyes flew open and she cried out, no doubt hurting from the way she was hanging from his grip on her arm. Kaz grunted in pain as he leaned on his broken leg. One arm was holding the bridge's pole, while the other gripped the girl's arm and was slowly starting to slip. He cursed himself for not working out more, but luckily the girl was light. With all the strength he had, he heaved her body onto the ledge next to him. 

The girl slammed into a pole none too gently. They both sat there for a moment, gasping for breath, limbs trembling. Kaz hissed as he felt the exertion throughout his body, but he stood up and offered her a hand, ignoring the pain. He felt angry and annoyed for getting hurt for someone else. 

But the girl just stared at him with wide eyes. "Why," she gasped, still panting. "Why did..."

Kaz felt his patience fraying, and he shot her a glare. "What are you waiting for? Let's get out of here, come on." 

The girl moved back. He could tell that she was weak and malnourished, but she held her head high and her posture was graceful. Her eyes hardened. "No one said you had to come. You should have just let me go." She had a slight Sulli accent.

Kaz tried schooled his features to be a little more welcome, although he wasn't sure if it was effective. "Look, you're young, so am I, you probably just went through something bad, but let's get on firm ground and you can talk about it with me. Let's not do anything we'll regret the last second." He stretched his gloved hand closer to her. 

The girl's face darkened. She twisted her body around and made as if to leap down, but her movements were slower than before. Kaz grabbed her arm again, and she jolted at his touch. She shoved him away. The ledge wobbled. He grabbed her again, this time pinning her against the pole.

He leaned close to her, close enough to see the dark circles under her eyes, her chapped lips, and her glistening eyes, pained and frustrated. "Look." His voice was soft, but gruff. "I...I've been here. I've been on this exact same bridge, and I've wanted to hurl myself into hell. But I didn't, because..." To get petty revenge on an old guy, but that was not a good reason to convince someone else to live. "...Because. I've gone through things too, but..." He took in a ragged breath, "...there's a lot to live for. Don't let yourself be overcome by your tormentors. Live to piss them off." 

The girl's dark eyes bore into him. She regarded him quietly, but her gaze was intense. They stood staring at each other, neither moving before the other. Finally, the girl relented, but her body was still stiff beneath his hand. She closed her eyes and dipped her head. 

Kaz let out a breath and let go of her. "Alright, let's go." Together, they climbed back onto the safer part of the bridge. Cars zoomed past them, and it was almost as if nothing had happened. From the corner of his eye, he could see that she was watching him with wary eyes. 

"Do you have a place to stay?" he asks.

She finally looks away. "No." 

He regretted the words as soon as they left his mouth. "You can stay at my place for the night." Since when did Kaz become a charity person?

She looks back at him, and he sees her discomfort. "No, it's fine. I--uh--it's fine, I can just--" she struggled for a response. She obviously had no other place to stay.

"I know it's weird to stay at a stranger's place, but it's better than snuggling with a tree. I have food, a warm bed, everything." Kaz mentally facepalmed. You've offered her too much already. Stop trying to be a nice person.

She regarded him with narrowed eyes. Kaz stared back at her calmly. A moment of clarity came to him, and he cocked his head. "You don't trust men."

Her eyebrows rose with surprise, and her glare dissolved. She seemed to be about to say something of agreement to him, but Kaz had already wasted too much time.

"Come on." He turned around and went to unlock his car. The girl hesitated for only a moment before following him and gingerly getting inside the car. Kaz turned it on, and started heading to the direction of his apartment. "What's your name?"

"Inej." It was a whisper, but it felt strong. Defiant. A battle not yet lost.

Kaz gave her a crooked smile and a gloved hand. "I'm Kaz."

Chapter Text

Inej didn't know what to make of the man driving next to her. She hoped that she would not regret trusting him. All the men she has known in in the last six months of her life were cruel, and only saw women as their prey. She knew that this man, Kaz, was different from other men; but she wasn't sure how, and whether for good or for worse. 

He kind of reminded her of a vampire. He was tall and lean, and had sickly pale skin that accentuated the shadows under his eyes. His hair was coffee brown, like his eyes. He wore a black and white suit with black gloves (for saint's sake, why is this guy wearing leather gloves in the summer?), and a cane. A sleek black cane with a crow's head at the top. Its beak gleamed brightly at Inej. His outfit was, Inej presumed, business attire, but to her he seemed like a magician. 

He couldn't have been more than a few years older than her, yet he carried a cane and dressed like am old man from the twenties. There was something about his eyes too, too hollow and ancient. Like he's seen too much of something. 

"I would really appreciate it if you stopped staring at me."

He was also the bluntest person she has ever met. Definitely antisocial and a misanthrope. She wondered if he had any friends.

She concentrated her eyes on the road. "Why did you save me?"

He clicked his tongue. "Is that really something you need an answer to?"

"You don't seem like a kind person, and you act like you want nothing to do with me. So why not just leave me there?"

He seemed like he was going to give her a mean retort, but paused and held himself. Inej waited. 

They arrived at a stoplight. Kaz leaned back and simply said, "You look like someone with a lot of potential. Don't throw your life away."

Inej turned her head away to hide her surprise, and thought about his words.

 

---

 

Based on the way he dressed, Inej had assumed that Kaz would live in a nice, rich looking neighborhood. Instead, they arrived in front of an apartment complex that looked like something from seventeenth century Amsterdam, which was ironic because they were near Chinatown. Crooked letters at the front spelled 'The Slat'. The building was dark, and in Inej's opinion, tremendously ugly. 

"This building is tremendously ugly," Inej said.

Kaz's lips curved upwards a little. "They say beauty comes from within."

They made their way inside. A pot bellied man sat at the front desk, smoking. He nodded at Kaz, and then noticed Inej. His eyes traveled up and down her body, looked back at Kaz, and whistled. "Looks like Dirtyhands has got himself company for the night!" He hooted and smirked at her. Inej felt her heart leap to her throat, and her blood starting to boil.

"Mind your own business, Bollinger." Kaz said very casually, but Bollinger's laugh dramatically died down. 

The sounds of yelling, banging, and blaring music filled Inej's ears as they ascended the stairs. A crash came from inside a room. Sounds of people doing... things... came from another room. A musky smell came from an opened door of someone's room.

Suddenly, Inej became very self aware. What in the world was she doing here? She was letting another man lead her to his home. This apartment complex seemed like a place that crime could happen completely unnoticed. Nothing good seemed to come out of here. She suddenly realized that this place was strikingly familiar to a place that she was forced to be in a few weeks ago, and she felt slightly lightheaded at that.

And who was this man next to her? It was clear that he was feared or respected in some way, and Inej didn't want to know why.

She was a fool. From the moment they met, she felt something odd about him. She had even thought he was going to save her life for good intentions. She... 

"Something's really wrong with you if you can't even keep up with a cripple while climbing stairs."

And still... he really didn't seem like he would harm her, despite their current environment. She came back into their current situation and found herself looking at an exasperated face. But he must have seen the fear in her, because his expression changed a little and he said, "People are just loud here. And they're all too lazy to climb all these stairs up to my floor. It'll be quieter up there too. Less people."

Less people hearing her cries for help, Inej thought. But she followed him into his home anyways, because she was too tired to do anything else. And if the worst thing happens, well, she was intending to die either way.

His studio was very organized and minimal, with no decorations. A small TV and a small black sofa. A desk with a monitor and papers piled everywhere. And a table that looked like an office desk, but was positioned near the kitchen to act as a dining table.

Kaz seemed to think for a moment. "Do you have any belongings with you besides the clothes you're currently wearing?"

Inej looked down. "No."

A few seconds of silence, then Kaz wordlessly disappeared into his bedroom. A moment later, he comes back with a bundle of clothes. "You can use my clothes. For today." He stiffly handed them to her.

"...Thanks." 

"Have you eaten anything today?" he asked.

Nope. She shook her head. 

"Well. Me neither." 

Inej snorted.

Soon, he produced two bowls of ramen with chopped vegetables in them, and set one of them on the dining table for Inej. The two ate in silence, Kaz occupied on his laptop while Inej ate like a starved wolf. Occasionally, Kaz would give her a weird look, and Inej would sheepishly try to eat quieter. 

He had a bookshelf near his desk filled with books. As Inej finished her food, she walked to it and tilted her head to see his books. 

Economics 101

How to Get Rich Fast

The Entrepreneur's Bible

"You can read some of them, if you want."

Inej smiled a little. "I'm not into business."

"There are novels at the bottom."

Inej leaned down, and saw a few of his novels.

1984

Animal Farm

Brave New World

Lord of the Flies

And the entire Sherlock Holmes series.

"Wow," Inej said.

"What?"

"Interesting."

"Do you not like my taste of books?"

"I've read all of these."

At this, Kaz stopped chewing and looked up from his laptop with a raised brow.

"Well, I've only read one Sherlock Holmes book. But the rest of these I've read."

Kaz observed her for a moment. "I see."

Suddenly feeling awkward, Inej turned away from him and pried at one of the books. "I guess I'll try to finish this series."

 

 

 

 

 ------

 

(ringing)

"Hello?"

"Are you going to be busy tomorrow?"

"Um, Kaz, are you trying to ask me out? I mean you're hot and all, but I'm not really into you that way." 

"I need you to do me a favor."

(scoff) "A favor. Of course. No, I am not going to do another favor for you. I don't want any more near death experiences, nor do I want to get arrested."

"I think you'll be interested in this one, Nina. This isn't one of the usual jobs, and no risk-taking involved."

"What is it?"

"I found a girl on Goedmedbridge."

"..."

"About to jump, but I pulled her back just in time." 

"Oh my god."

"Not sure if she's grateful about it though. Will you come help her?"

"She's at your house?"

"Yes."

"Is she mentally... okay?"

"She's definitely been traumatized by something, but I don't think she has any disorder."

"Okay, I'm coming tomorrow. Should I bring anything?"

"Some clothes and shoes, and anything else you think she needs. She doesn't have anything with her. I think she's homeless."

"Christ. Okay, I'll be there."

"Wonderful."

"... I didn't think you would have done all of this, Kaz."

"..."

(call ended)

Chapter Text

Inej woke up, briefly confused with her current surroundings, then remembered the events that transpired last night. She shifted around on the hard futon she had slept on overnight and the scratchy blanket Kaz had given her. Kaz's plain clothes hung loosely around her and Inej was grateful for the comfort of it.

The sound of footsteps came to her ears. She turned to see Kaz walking into the living room. "Rise and shine," he said. He was in his work clothes again.

"What time is it?" Inej asked, rising up and leaning against her elbows.

"Seven-thirty," he replied.

"Are you going to work?"

"Yes," Kaz said, while taking his cane and suitcase. "I'll be back at four."

"Inej shrugged off the blanket and sat up on the couch. "Uh... What will I do?" she asked tentatively.

Kaz ignored her, focusing on his phone. 

Inej was about to throw a pillow at him when he clicked his tongue and said, "Breakfast is in the fridge. There's not much to do around here, besides read my books. Don't go in my bedroom or touch any of my personal belongings. Don't touch anything on my desk. Don't open the windows or the door for anyone. You can do chores if you want."

"You're not letting me leave?" Inej asked, immensely irritated.

"I'm not giving you a spare key. And you'll get lost in this part of the city. Pimps and traffickers lurk in every corner waiting for fresh meat."

She stiffened at the last sentence, her body growing taunt as dark memories filled her mind. She suddenly longed to be with her parents again, not in this dangerous city with this strange man. "Why do you choose to live here then?"

His eyes flickered to where she was. "It's cheap and convenient." As he opened the door to leave, he said, "You'll meet someone when I get back. I think you'll like her."

 

 

___________________________________________________________

 

 

 Inej spent most of her time reading books, occasionally getting up to stare outside the window. There really was nothing to do in his miserable little apartment, especially since she apparently couldn't touch 80% of the things here. She considered venturing into his room, just to piss him off, but decided against it since he probably had cameras or recorders everywhere in the house. 

You can do chores if you want. Inej huffed. Like hell.

Finally, she heard jingling keys on the other side of the door and the precise turn of locks. The door opened and in came Kaz, and to Inej's surprise, a tall woman in scrubs followed him, looking at Inej with curiosity and concern.

Kaz set his belongings down and said to Inej, "How was your day?"

"Wonderful."

"Anything interesting happen?"

She stared at him. "No." Actually, she saw two cats fighting on the rooftops of a building nearby, but he probably wouldn't think that was interesting. 

"He's good at making people like him, isn't he?" The woman snorted as she set down a large bag.

"Inej, meet Nina."

Nina smiled warmly at Inej as Inej gazed at her. She was tall and curvy, with wavy brown locks falling down her head like a waterfall. Her ruby red lipstick matched the her dangling earrings, and her long lashes framed her bright, emerald eyes. She was... stunning, and looking at her made Inej feel hot.

And she couldn't help but wonder why she associated with Kaz."You're his friend?" she asked Nina, failing to not sound incredulous.

Nina rolled her eyes as Kaz threw her a look before disappearing in his room. "He's not that bad once you get to know him." She sat down on the couch beside Inej. "And he did rescue you, didn't he?"

"I-yeah." Suddenly the air around them was awkward and Inej did not know what to say. She looked down at her hands, realizing that that were becoming sweaty. He must have told Nina everything. What she had been meaning to do when he found her -- It was so shameful. Horrifying, now that Inej looked back at it. For if she was to do it again right now, she would regret it for sure.

"Hey, hey." Nina scooted close and gently took Inej's hand, and then put the other on Inej's back. "Do you need anything?" she asked Inej, and Inej was struck by the sincerity in her eyes. Nina pulled her closer and started rubbing her back in slow, comfortable circles. Inej felt herself leaning into Nina's delightful cleavage chest. "I know it's hard," Nina murmured. "But Inej, I'm proud of you for being here, right now." She squeezed Inej's hand and looked at her again. "And I want to make sure you don't ever feel that way again." She smiled. "I want to be friends with you."

Something about this beautiful woman made Inej feel warm and happy inside, for what felt like the first time in ages. "Thank you," she whispered. And realized that she forgot what it felt like to be touched in a warm, caring way.

Nina gave Inej a gentle kiss on the temple that fluttered her stomach. "Are you new to Ketterdam?"

Inej nodded. "I'm from Ravka."

"And you're all alone here?"

"Yes," Inej said, her voice involuntarily lowering.

Nina squeezed her hand. "Do you have a number I can call for you? Or an address I can mail?" 

She shook her head. "I lost my phone back in Ravka, and I forgot all the numbers on it. We don't have an address. My family lives in a caravan, so we're constantly moving around."

Nina frowned. "That makes a lot of things more complicated."

Inej knew that. Her situation was hopeless indeed. 

"How did you end up in Ketterdam? If you don't mind me asking."

How did you end up in Ketterdam. 

Inej just shrugged.

Nina quietly searched her face. It made Inej uncomfortable and her body wished to squirm around and escape. She prepared to be interrogated, but to her relief, all she said was, "And you need to get home, right? You're not here for anything?"

"Yes," she murmured. "I hate this city."

Inej didn't know what was funny, but Nina laughed. "Why? What's wrong with it?"

"It's ugly. It's always cloudy and raining. The sky is always gray, and the streets are always wet. And it smells like garbage everywhere I go." Except Kaz's apartment didn't smell like anything, which was a pleasant surprise. "Ravka is paradise compared to this. Full of life."

"Yeah," Nina agreed.  "I know. I'm from Ravka too."

"You are?" Inej looked at her with surprise. Nina gave her the kind of smile that people in Inej's family sometimes gave to each other, the kind of familiar smile only reserved for people who understood each other through shared heritage or experiences. Being with someone else from Ravka in this saint forsaken city took away some of her loneliness.   

"Why would you leave Ravka to live in this place?" she asked Nina.

"I'm a medical student. I came here to study medicine, among other things. The universities here are one of the best in the world. And besides, Ketterdam isn't a complete swampland. The university district and the rich neighborhoods are surprisingly clean. I'll take you out of the Barrel one day, if you like." 

Inej wanted to object that Ravka had the best doctors in the world, and that they have had a history of great medical and military inventions. At the capital, Os Alta, there is a royal academy home to the most talented innovators of science and technology, called Little Palace. A portion of Ravka's army is also trained there, called the Second Army. Inej saw those soldiers once, when they were passing near her family's camp. She remembered their glittering uniforms and the prestigious grace of their movements. She remembered observing them, and being able to feel the dormant powers that they possessed.

She almost didn't notice that Nina's lighthearted tone had a hint of tightness when talking they started talking about Ravka. Something made her feel that Nina missed Ravka, and probably would have stayed there if she could. Everyone had their own unlucky situations, it seemed. 

"Anyways," Nina said as leaned forward to pull her bag to her. "Kaz told me that you don't have anything with you. So I brought you some stuff to get by." She pulled out a clean, white t-shirt, a large hoodie, and sweatpants. "These are mine, but you can have them. They'll be a little big on you since I'm so large..." Nina winked, "But they should fit comfortably. If the sweatpants sag too much I'll just buy you a new pair."

Before Inej could utter out a word of gratitude, Nina buried her arms into the bag again and fished out more items, passing them all to Inej. "Let's see... here's a toothbrush and toothpaste, a comb and a couple hair ties, although I probably should have brought more since your hair is long... Here's a shaver and a loofah,, oh and some socks."

Inej gawked at Nina, who kept fishing stuff out of her bag like a deranged Santa. "Wait--"

"Aha! This is the most important thing you'll be needing." Nina handed Inej something that looked like a makeup bag, unzipping it for Inej to see. "A girl's most powerful weapons. Her war paint." Her eyes gleamed triumphantly. Inej peered in the bag, finding mascara, a tube of red lipstick, concealer, and eyeliner. "I didn't want to assume your makeup style and get too much, so I only got the bare necessities," Nina said apologetically. 

"I didn't realize that makeup was a necessity," said Kaz, walking into the living room. He now wore black long sleeves with dark denim jeans, but his hair was still perfectly gelled and his gloves were still on. Inej willed herself not to stare at him. He is very stylish.

"A guy wouldn't understand," Nina shot back. 

Makeup?  Inej thought. She did used to wear makeup for her performances, but it was only for the stage. She had never considered wearing it on a daily basis like many girls her age. But she looked at Nina, and wondered if she herself could become as beautiful and confident as her. 

"Priorities," Kaz muttered as he went to the kitchen.

Nina stuck her middle finger up at his back. Then she turned back to Inej. "Alright. And finally, this will also be important." She took out a zippy bag with pads and tampons inside. "Here you go," she whispered dramatically, and Inej couldn't help giggling.

She looked around at all of the items. A stranger who had not even met her had given her all of this. She felt tears forming in her eyes again. "You are too kind. I don't know how to repay you for all of this."

"Hey. No. Don't worry about any of that right now. Do not start thinking about debts and shit. You've gone through way too much, and you need some time to recover from everything. Seriously, are you trying to be like Kaz?"

"What she is saying is not unreasonable." Kaz walked into the living room, holding a cup of coffee. Inej noticed the awkward position of his leg as he sat down at his desk. His eyes were dark and unreadable as they reached her face. "I hope you are not expecting us to take care of you forever. And traveling has gotten harder and more expensive these days, with the taxes and increased tensions between countries."

"Of course not." Inej frowned. "I don't wish to stay here either." But if she were to be honest with herself, she was not ready to go back to Ravka either. She braced herself and said, "I'll get a job here. I'll make enough money to buy a ticket to go home. I'll pay you guys back for everything." She hoped that she had on a determined face, but on the inside all she was thinking about was climbing into the nearest sewer and never moving again. 

"And where will you be staying? Will you be paying for rent too?" asked Kaz.

"Fuck off, Kaz," Nina snapped. And then sighed. "There's a rule against housing students who don't go the the university in my dorms, and I don't have room anyways since i share my dorm with two other girls. And honestly Genya would drive you insane." 

"Seems like you're stuck with me then," Kaz said mildly. 

"For now, at least," agreed Nina. They exchanged looks, Nina giving him a glare and Kaz giving her an amused glance.

Inej glanced between the two. She had a feeling that Kaz would give her a hard time, but she was grateful that he wasn't a pervert, at least. She'll try her best to make herself invisible so he'll ignore her. 

Nina checked her phone and swore. "I have an exam tomorrow and I haven't studied anything yet! I need to meet up with the people in my class. Ugh." She got up from the couch. "Can I have your number Inej? You'll need someone to go to when you can't stand Kaz --Oh wait -- You don't have a ---asdfghjkl, pretend I didn't say anything."

Inej smiled. She got up too and shyly hugged Nina. 

"Aw honey, you're too sweet. Don't worry, I'll visit you soon! Bye!!" 

 

 

__________________________________________________________________

 

 

"Do you have any work experience?"

Trying her best to not sound like a loser, Inej mumbled, "No." She felt self-consciously immature and younger than her age. Kaz only seemed to be a couple years older than Inej, yet Inej felt like a child compared to him. He had his own apartment and his own car. He had a job, and it must pay a lot if he can afford to live by himself. He wore neat, professional clothes every day. The only thing he seemed to lack was cooking skills, since his kitchen was full of instant foods and energy drinks. 

And a social life, Inej thought.

Kaz flicked his pencil in his hand as he studied his laptop. "What are you good at, then?"

Inej scrunched up her shoulders and shrugged. "Walk a high wire, swing a trapeze, calm lions and tigers."

"You're good with animals?"

She never really thought about it. She's grown up around animals, and it was her job to take care of them. Over the years, she has learned how to read their body language and communicate with them. Her family trusted her the most with handling lions and tigers. She smiled to herself. "Sure."

"How does working at an animal cafe sound?"

"With lions and tigers?"

Kaz gave her a very strange glance. "Domesticated cats and dogs. Small birds and rabbits. I think they have iguanas and hedgehogs now."

Oh. "Yeah, I can do that," She replied, even though she didn't know what iguanas were. The rest of the animals seem easy enough.

"Can you wash dishes?"

"Um, I guess?"

Kaz wrote something down. "I'll take you to your workplace tomorrow. Be ready at seven." 

"Thank you for everything you're doing for me," Inej said. 

"Don't worry about it."

 

Chapter Text

There was a new employee at the cafe. This did not surprise Jesper at all, for people could never work there for too long. They simply could never last. He, Rotty, and Specht were the only employees who have stayed for more than two months so far. And honestly, this small, Sulli girl didn’t seem like she could handle the crazy animals here.

Jesper chuckled. “They found a new one fast.”

“Of course,” said Rotty as he prepared a latte. “People are always desperate for work in this city.”

“I don’t know about her, though,” Specht said thoughtfully while stroking a cat. “She seems too shy. I saw her freak out when Plumje yelled at her.” When he mentioned her name, Plumje ruffled her feathers and glared at him. “Piss off,” she growled in a mock low voice.

Jesper and Rotty laughed, while Specht put on a hurt face. Plumje was the cockatoo that sat near the cash register, and she was one of the customer favorites. She liked to glare at customers and make them feel nervous, or say something perverted to make them laugh.

At that moment, their store manager walked over with the girl in tow.

“Boys!” he barked. “This is our recruit. Girl, what’s your name?”

“Inej.” 

“Alright, so Inej was personally recommended by Brekker. He says you’ll do well with the animals or something.” He raised his eyebrows at her.

Kaz recruited her?   Jesper thought with surprise as he exchanged glances with Specht and Rotty.

“Now, normally we won’t hire foreigners that barely speak any Kerch, but Brekker usually has a good judgement. Hopefully there’s more to you than your stupid face. Secret talents or something.” He sneered. “I hope the brat doesn’t get a habit of picking kids that look like they just came out of the canals.”

Jesper, Rotty, and Specht all inwardly winced, and gave the girl sympathetic glances. Jesper could see that her fists were clenched, and that she wouldn’t look at the man. When her gaze met Jesper’s, he gave her a look that said, we're not like him, I swear.

“I’ll leave it to you guys to show her around and everything.” He released her and sauntered off, yelling at other employees as he moved.

“Sorry about our boss,” Rotty said cheerfully after he left. “He’s a bully, but he’ll leave you alone if you do your job well."

"He didn't really mean any of that," added Jesper. "He just likes to scare people.”

The girl sniffed and said nothing.

Rotty offered a hand. “Name’s Rotty. I’m the barista and cook here.”

“Food heater,” Jesper corrected. “Most of the stuff here is premade.”

“Bruh.”

“Specht, at your service.” Specht saluted with one hand while in the other he held a large cat. Birds were perched on both of his shoulders.

Jesper stepped in front of Inej and bowed dramatically low. “And I am Jesper Fahey, the charming and irresistible cashier.” He flashed her his most charismatic smile. “It is a pleasure to have you with us, my lady.”

Inej gaped at all three of them, a blush rising to her cheeks.

Jesper smirked. “Follow me, and I will show you around.”

“Hey, I should be the one to show her around since she’ll be mostly working with me,” Specht said as he slid between them.

Jesper dodged him and led Inej away. “I’ll show her the general stuff right now. You should go and get all that shit cleaned off your shoulders.”

Specht glared at his back.

Jesper gasped and whispered, “Sorry. I’m not supposed to curse. No one heard that.”

Inej gave a smile.

 

 

------------------------------------------------------

 

 

“Uuuuuaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhuhhhhhhh,” Jesper heaved as he slid onto the counter. He breathed in his cigarette and blew out another long sigh, “Aaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.”

“Will you shut up?” Rotty muttered, trying to nap while sitting. He had his head buried in his arms.

“Nah,” Jesper said languidly as he leaned back. The sweet scent of jurda filled all of his senses. As his eyes drifted around, he noticed an ugly brown stain at the front of his gorgeous, lime green pants.

“How did this get here?” he murmured as he tried to flick it away.

Specht came in and started rinsing his hands. “I think Inej will do well.” he said. “She seems pretty fit for the job.”

“She did charm the animals pretty well,” Rotty agreed. “I think she has already formed a better bond with Plumje than me, and I’ve known that stupid bird for months.”

Specht snorted. “That’s because Plumje can tell that you’re scared of her. Inej approached all of the animals with a calm and gentle attitude, that’s why they like her.”

Rotty made an incoherent retort into the crook of his arm.

“Anyways,” Specht continued, “It’s nice to have the extra help again. I hate how little staff we have out there, it’s too much work for me.”

“Eh,” said Rotty. “Better to have less staff than bad staff.”

Jesper snickered. “Remember when Retvenko left? That was probably the most work drama we’ve had this month.”

“God, don’t remind me. It would have been funny if it wasn’t so serious.”

Specht sighed. “Boss would have fired him sooner or later, anyways.”

“What happened?”

“AAHHH!” Jesper yelped and dropped his cigarette at Inej's sudden voice next to him. “Where did you even come from?!”

“Sorry,” she apologized.

Jesper scowled. “Where you trying to creep up on me?”

“No? I just walked next to you." She looked at Jesper's burnt cigarette. "You're allowed to smoke here?"

Specht gave Jesper a look. "You're not supposed to since it's a cafe."

"No one cares though," said Jesper pleasantly. "It's Ketterdam. Everyone smokes. There's no 'no smoking' sign at the entrance, if you haven't noticed."

Inej frowned with distaste, but moved on and said, "But what happened with the person you were talking about?”

"Ah, right." Rotty smirked. “Sofia the poodle had diarrhea and basically spewed everything all over him. Retvenko gagged and threw up. On a nearby customer. The whole cafe was a mess.”

“Boss fired Ret right in front of everyone,” Jesper added. “Our ratings dropped by one star and customers decreased by half for a while.”

Specht laughed at Inej’s horrified expression. “Awe, don’t worry. That’s only happened once. The animals here are pretty chill if you’re good with them.”

“Won’t happen again,” promised Rotty.

Inej did not look convinced.

Jesper nudged her with his foot. “So what’s your story, Sulli girl? How did you come across the one and only Kaz Brekker?”

“Uh… He saved my life. How do you guys know him?”

Clearly there was more to the story than she let on, but Jesper let it slide. Besides, he could always try to annoy the details out of Kaz in the office tomorrow.

Rotty observed his fingernails. “He helped me out of a huge debt. I owe a lot to him.”

“I got kicked out of the navy, so he found me and helped me get this job,” said Specht.

Jesper grinned. “I work with him at his office.”

Inej blinked at him. “You have two jobs?”

“Yep.”

Rotty rolled his eyes. “Don’t look so impressed. Both of these jobs are easy, and the only reason he needs to be working at all is because he dropped out of university.

“And, you know,” Specht said, “He needs to afford to keep up with his nightly adventures.”

“Hey! I can never make new friends if you two are always pointing out the bad things about me!”

Inej slowly edged away from him a little. “Your… night adventures?” She peered at him suspiciously.

Rotty and Specht sniggered, and Jesper flushed as he glared at them. “No! You’ve got it all wrong. It’s not like that. I don’t… Asdfghjkl.” He crossed his arms. “It’s not what you think.”

She continued to stare at him. But he glared right back at her. She had no right to demand knowledge about his personal life when she was clearly hiding things herself.

After a couple seconds of awkward silence, Jesper checked his watch. “Yikes! I have to get a delivery. See you in two days Inej!” He swung off the counter and made for the exit.

As he was about to leave, he heard behind his back, “Why does he do two part time jobs if he could just do one full time?”

“Because he’s an idiot who makes bad decisions,” said Rotty. Tch. Jesper put ‘throw cat litter at Rotty’s face’   in his mental to-do list.

“Jesper has attention disorders, even though he won’t admit it,” said Specht. “He can’t sit in a cubicle for ten hours straight doing paperwork every single day. But he also can’t be here all day long either, since he’s allergic to cats, and the pay is rather low for his financial situation. Also--” Jesper hears a smack “---actually nevermind.”

“Huh… ”

 

 

--------------------------------------------

 

 

Later-

 

Jesper jogged up the stairs of the Slat with ease. He imagined himself as a beautiful galloping horse, prancing with the grace of a god as each leg formed perfect arcs while he soared above the steps, two at a time. He stopped when he reached Kaz’s door, and gingerly rang the doorbell.

A moment later, the door opened to reveal a Kaz, holding a cup of coffee and still in his work suit, since he had just returned home.

“Here you go, good sir.” Jesper hauled the large package into Kaz’s arms.

“Thanks.” He shoved it into his apartment, exerting more effort than Jesper did.

Jesper leaned back against the doorframe and casted a lazy eye at Kaz as he lit himself a cigarette, a smirk beginning to form on his face.

“So,” he drawled. “Tell me about Inej.”

“What do you want to know?” replied Kaz as he roughly pushed the box into his living room.

“What are you gonna do with her?”

“That's not something you need to worry about.”

Jesper felt a prickle of annoyance at the vague reply.

Kaz took out a pair of scissors and started cutting the package open. “By the way, how did she do for the first day?”

You’re expecting me to answer your questions now, you dick?   But Jesper just smiled and said, “Pretty well, actually. Definitely good with the animals. Didn’t even complain when taking out all the cat litter. She will last longer than Retvenko, I think.”

“Good. Keep an eye on her.”

Jesper observed Kaz. “What’s up with her? She’s a bit different than everyone else.”

He ripped open the package and peered at the contents inside. “She’ll tell you about herself whenever she decides to.”

“Really now? How interesting. Now I must befriend her.” He took the cigarette out of his mouth and blew it into Kaz’s apartment.

Kaz waved the air in front of him and pushed Jesper off the doorframe. “You’re done here, so go back to your own apartment. See you at work tomorrow.”

“See you--”

He closed the door at Jesper’s face.

Jesper blew out a sigh and turned away. He walked to his own apartment, which was only a few feet away.

Chapter Text

“Why aren’t you doing anything?” Jordie screamed. “Stop standing there like an idiot, Kaz. Do something. Help me!”

“Jordie,” Kaz stumbled toward his brother, reaching out a hand--

Jordie slapped his hand away. Before Kaz could even react, he reared back and sent his fist straight into Kaz’s nose. Kaz crashed back at the force. His brother was a lot stronger than he thought, despite his weakened condition.

“Good for nothing,” Jordie snarled. He leaned sideways and snatched up his crowbar. His favorite weapon. Always with him. His hands were trembling, but not with rage. There was a crazed look in his bloodshot eyes.

“Please,” Kaz pleaded. His nose hurt like hell, and there was blood trickling into his mouth. “I’m trying to help. I’ll fix this Jordie. I’m sorry. I'm trying. I'll fix this.”

“You fucking better.”

The last thing Kaz saw was Jordie swinging back the crowbar .

 

 

Kaz’s eyes snapped open, wide and alert. A moment passed before his lungs realized that he wasn’t breathing. He exhaled. And inhaled and exhaled again, drawing in rapid breaths. Another moment passed before his hands realized that they were trembling, clenched tightly around his cane. How did I end up grabbing this?  He set the cane down and flung the blanket off himself and sat up.

He was sweating profusely, and his leg was throbbing. He unbuttoned his nightshirt and gently stretched out his leg, grateful that he was able to breathe a little better.

He simply sat there for a couple minutes, evening out his breath and waiting for all of his senses to calm down. His raspy panting filled the room, but other than that there was complete silence in the apartment. Eventually, the sounds of the buzzing Ketterdam nightlife slowly came to his ears. The  screeching traffic just outside at the street. The rhythmic bass of a party. And far away, the long, beeping horn of a train.

2:35 A.M.

Man. Every time he actually tried to sleep early, he ended up having these dreams. He slipped out of bed and crept out of his bedroom quietly.

In the living room, Inej slept soundly. Her face was peaceful and serene. Kaz watched her for a moment, listening to her quiet, slow breathing. It occurred to Kaz that he knew very little about her. Normally, he was good at uncovering the lives of people around him, but Inej had built thick, impenetrable walls around herself the moment they met. He didn’t even get her age. She looked too young to be on her own with nothing with her. It reminded him of himself, six years ago. 

Venturing into these types of thoughts were dangerous and unpleasant. He left to the kitchen and poured himself a glass of water, and barely noticed that she had washed all the dishes and cleaned the counter tops.

He was too restless to go back to sleep, so he went out. A cold wind brushed his clothes as he strolled on the streets. Bright lamp posts illuminated the dark streets. Cars zoomed past the late night pedestrians who talked and laughed loudly, without a care for the sleeping souls living nearby. Several buildings nearby still had flickering lights inside the windows. The alleyways were dark, but alive.

This city never sleeps at night.

If there was any room in his heart for love, it would be for Ketterdam. Even despite all the sufferings and misfortunes he’d experienced here, he felt that this place had been gifted to him. He enjoyed going out at night, all alone. At times, he felt the weight of loneliness settle in his gut, but for now, it was perfectly fine. He had been alone for six years already, and he had done perfectly fine.

He had adopted this city as his own, or maybe the city adopted him. He was going to stay here for the rest of his life.

As he walked, the lyrics of a song he heard on the radio drifted into his mind.

 

 

 

Walls so thin I could almost

Hear them breathing

And if I listen in

I can hear my own heart beating

I guess it’s just a feeling

In the city…

 

-----------------------------------------------------

 

“Kaz? Mister Haskell has called a quick meeting and wants to see you in his office.”

It was uncommon for him to call meetings unscheduled. Finishing up the work on his desktop, Kaz rose and made for Haskell’s office.  As he entered, he saw that there were other people already there. Jesper grinned at him. The twins didn’t even acknowledge him.  David only gave a slight nod in greeting. All the heads of each department were here apparently, except Jesper.

The twins, Tolya and Tamar, worked here as the heads of security guards. Tall, broad-shouldered and with arms as thick as Kaz’s thighs, they were well fit for the job. Although they were Shu, Kaz found out (through his mandatory stalking) that they were raised in Ravka, and were quite religious. He didn't entirely trust them. They kept their distance from him, so he did too.

David Kostyk was a programmer from Ravka. He was very talented and useful, but very quiet and antisocial. Never smiled or laughed, and only talked about work and computers. A nervous, awkward human, he was even thinner and paler than Kaz himself and was often made fun of by everyone in the office. Kaz, on the other hand, was more wary. Right from the start he gave Kaz a strange feeling. And he wasn’t the only one in the office who thought that. A Ravkan working in a Kerch security department? And being promoted as quickly as he did? Didn’t really make anyone comfortable. Kaz highly suspected him of being a Ravkan spy. After running his identity through every system he could think of, there was barely anything of him. Very sketchy if a person thought to leave no traces.

Nevermind how hypocritical Kaz was being.

“Brekker, welcome. Come sit down.”

“Did something come up, Haskell?” he eased himself onto the long couch as far away from David as possible.

Per Haskell’s eye twitched with irritation at the informal way Kaz addressed him, but he ignored it. He clasped his hands in front of him and leaned forward, staring hard into the faces of everyone in the room.

“First of all,” he started, “Everything in this meeting is going to stay in this room until further notice, and if I catch any of you guys gossiping about what we’re going to talk about, you will be immediately fired.”

Jesper stopped drumming his fingers on the windowsill, and David stopped fidgeting with his sleeve. They both straightened.

Oh, this is going to be interesting.

“I’ve received orders from the Merchant Council today for an assignment,” Haskell said. The Merchant Council were the political authorities of Kerch, and held the most wealth and influence in the entire country. As the capital, Ketterdam held most of its departments, big companies, and the navy.

“Oooh really? Are we gonna have some top secret government mission?” Jesper’s eyes shined with excitement. To be honest, Jesper’s presence here is a bit questionable .

Haskell silenced him with a glare, but did not correct him. Kaz observed David from the corner of his eye, but David remained neutrally alert. The twins were masks of indifference.

“There have been a number of crimes showing up in the city,” Haskell continued. “Not really more than the normal amount of crimes--” he snorted “--but the stadwatch are having lots of trouble, apparently. Most of them are getting away, and the more they get away, the more the crimes are multiplying.”

“What kinds of crimes?” Tamar asked.

“The typical types of crimes,” Haskell replied. “Robbery, arsenal, murder, rape, human trafficking.”

Kaz felt David shift with unease. He’s only been here for a few months, and still hasn’t really gotten used to the brutality of Ketterdam. The casual way Per Haskell spoke of this issue must have unnerved him.

“As you have probably already figured out, the Council wants us to take care of the security cameras and do some organizing. But I need you guys be very alert. Tell your teams that if you see any suspicious activity, report it. Keep an eye on the database for hacking or strange data. Make sure the cameras are never interfered with. Don't take anything as a coincidence. Something that has also occurred these days is the malfunctioning of security cameras in certain areas of the city, and many were stationed right were the crimes happened. That's one of the main reasons why many of these criminals are getting away with what they're doing right now. Take nothing as a coincidence.”

This did seem pretty eerie. "How is this happening then?" Jesper wondered. "Have they all developed new sets of skills?"

“Is there something specific that we’re supposed to be looking for?” asked Kaz.

“Although the crimes were all seemingly unrelated, the Merchant Council and the Stadwatch Station think that this is all done by an organization, or at least part of something much bigger.”

“Like a gang?” Jesper suggested.

Haskell shrugged. “Possibly.”

“Why are we handling this then?” Kaz said. “Isn’t this the job of the Stadwatch Station?”

He scoffed and leaned back. “As I said, they haven’t had much success with finding anything. The Merchant Council wants all the help they can get. They obviously also have their own private investigators on this too. But this was a direct order from them, so we have to follow it. And besides, our team is much more diverse and versatile.” There was a greedy glint in his eyes. “If we manage to solve this before the Stadwatch Station and the private investigators, then we’ll surely receive some good attention.”

After Haskell gave them more information about the case, the five of them exited his office and began giving out orders.

“Man,” Jesper said to Kaz as he draped a long, dark arm over the wall of his cubicle. “We’re finally gettin’ to do some top notch stuff here, huh?”

Tolya, hearing Jesper as he walked by, shot him a murderous glare. Jesper laughed nervously. “Ha ha! Right Kaz? I’m talkin’ about the event that’s coming up next weekend down at East Stave, yeah? The, uh, the thing. We’re all excited for it.”

Tolya leaned toward Jesper and hissed, “I can barely comprehend why you’re even in on this. You don’t even have enough authority to be considered important, and you’re just gonna go around gossiping it with everyone.”

Kaz supposed that this was the part where he was supposed to defend his friend, but he honestly agreed with Tolya.

Jesper indignantly hissed back, “Watch it, Mister Shu man. Don’t underestimate me. I might be younger and less experienced than you and yadda yadda, but there is a reason that I’m in on this. Mr. Haskell sees all the potential in me that you're blind to.”

Tolya let Jesper go and strode off, clearly not bothering to answer to him.

“Jesper,” Kaz said, “Please don’t get yourself fired. Or any of us.”

 

 

 

__________________________________

 

You have 5 unread messages

 

Messages

 

 

Nina (3)

 

Jesper (1)

 

Dumbass Phone Plan (1)

 

__________________________________

 

Today 13:00 p.m.

Nina: Hey Kaz, let’s take Inej out for dinner

Nina: She deserves to see the city and stuff

Nina: And i bet all you’ve been feeding her is ramen and chips

 

 

__________________________________

 

 

Fri 20:58 p.m

Jesper: Come to my partayyyyyy come on

Read ✓

Today 14:40 p.m.

Jesper: So it has come to my awareness that you and Nina are taking Inej out for dinner and i haven’t been invited???

 

 

--------------------------------------------------------------

 

 

Wed 10:00 a.m

Dumbass Phone Plan: Hello! Remember to pay your phone bill by the end of this month. Consider trying out this new phone plan (link) with unlimited text and call, if you sign up today you get 25% off!

 

--------------------------------------------------------------

 

Much later -

 

 

 

“I love this.” Inej’s eyes shined with delight as she savored each spoonful of soup. “I love you so much, Nina.”

Nina, albeit busy gobbling down her own food, replied with equal happiness, “Honey, this is only the first restaurant you’ve been to here. Wait till we go to one of those fancy ones in the University District.”

“I’ve never heard of anyone eating waffles for dinner, Nina,” said Jesper as he chomped on a giant drumstick. 

“Well, apparently Kaz is a vegetable person, and I don’t think anyone has ever considered that.” Nina gestured at Kaz, who was picking at a bowl of salad.

He shrugged. “We’re all eating whatever we want here.”

“Exactly.” Inej grinned at him. The first real smile she has given him.

She has really long eyelashes , he thought.

“For once, I’m the only normal person.” Jesper chugged down some beer. Nina delicately sipped her glass of wine, although Kaz and Jesper both knew that she was just pretending. He wondered what Inej would think of Nina and Jesper if she saw them at one of their crazy parties. Kaz, on the other hand, was not an alcohol person; he preferred to have conscience over his thoughts and decisions, thank you very much.

“Yo.” Jesper nudged Inej. “Wanna take a sip?” he slyly nodded to his beer. Since she didn't have an ID, she was unable to get any alcoholic beverages.

“Uh…” she looked hesitant. “What’s the drinking age here?”

“Ah pshhh, who cares. You're with friends, not your parents.”

“Eighteen,” said Kaz. “How old are you?”

She awkwardly looked at her soup. "Seventeen, turning eighteen in a month. I’ve never had alcohol before. It wasn’t something my family did, but some of my uncles liked it.”

Nina pressed Inej close to her. “You are so young.”

Jesper sighed. “You better enjoy your youthfulness before you grow to become an old grandpa like Specht.”

"Or Kaz,” added Nina.

“Mhm.”

Inej looked at Kaz, who was excellently focusing on a broccoli. “How old are you?”

“As old as your grandpa.” His face gave away nothing.

“You can’t be more than thirty, at least,” said Inej. 

“Can’t I?”

“Trust me, he’s not. He’s like the same age as me.” Nina poured more syrup on her stack of waffles.

Younger, actually . Kaz lazily looked away. He could feel Inej’s searing gaze on him, clearly not believing it.       

“Guys.” Jesper’s voice fell low as his eyes landed intently on someone past Kaz’s shoulder. “Don’t turn around and look at them just yet, Kaz, but there’s a really cute couple behind you. Three tables away.”

Nina squinted at them. “They’re not a couple, you idiot. They look too different. They’re probably coworkers.”

“Maybe they are coworkers. They’re so different from each other, and opposites attract. What do you think, Inej?”

“I don’t think they seem like a couple…” she said.

Kaz casually turned his body sideways to look at them. A big muscular Fjerdan guy sat across a smaller, skinny Kerch boy with curly red hair. Their differences were tremendous. The Fjerdan guy was wearing brown, dirty clothes, while the other boy had on an expensive looking sweater with a leather satchel at his waist. The boy looked as delicate as a flower, and the Fjerdan could very well have been a wrestler. Their foods were untouched; instead, they were both examining the pile of papers between them. 

“I have never underestimated your idiocy more,” said Kaz. “Are you looking at them properly? They’re clearly discussing something professional. Blondie looks like a construction worker or a contractor, while the kid is probably a young businessman or an architect.”

Jesper scowled.

Nina was staring at the Fjerdan. “Damn ,” she murmured. “Will you look at that beautiful man?”

“The merchling is hella cute too,” said Jesper. “Just look at those bright ocean blue eyes.”

“I wonder how it’d feel if he carried me in his arms,” said Nina dreamily.

"His skin is probably as soft as a baby's," Jesper muttered. "Actually, his entire face is a baby."

Inej grinned at Kaz's expression. He shook his head and went back to eating, ignoring the eyes looking past his shoulder.

After a few more moments, Nina sighed. “Stupid. There is absolutely no way I would ever date him. He definitely looks like he’s been a soldier before.”

“So?” Kaz said. “I thought girls were into soldiers.”

She glared at him. “My country is going to war against his. I would never accept the things that those Fjerdan men have done, nor would I ever date someone who thinks the way they do.”

Inej understood Nina, for she took her hand and held it.

“Yeah,” Jesper said, trying to change the suddenly bitter mood, “That merchling kid won’t do. He looks way too soft and proper. He'd think I'm a freak.”                                 

Chapter Text

Night approached fast, and the streets grew dark. After Inej and Kaz said their goodbyes to Nina and Jesper, they began to head back to Kaz’s car. Kaz didn’t want to pay for parking, so instead of parking his car right in front of the restaurant he chose a free parking lot a few blocks away. It was a good opportunity for Inej to explore this part of the city as they walked. There was so much happening everywhere. Some people were rowdy and festive, some had on angry expressions and stormed towards their destinations, and a few loitered near walls looked downright suspicious. Also, Ketterdam had so much more technology than her home country. Inej said as much to Kaz, who made a snide comment about Ravka that pissed her off.

They approached an old looking bar, which was much more crowded than it was when they passed it coming here. A man with a hood on dressed in dark clothes leaned against the window, swaying, and as they drew closer Inej noticed the booze soaking his shirt, and the utterly wasted look in his bloodshot eyes. When he saw Inej, he grinned broadly.

Inej’s heart thumped in her chest. Ignore me, ignore me, ignore me , she silently begged him and prayed to her saints as she and Kaz approached him on the sidewalk.

No such luck. As soon as they were perpendicular with each other, he pushed off the wall and hooked his hand on her arm.

“Hey, little Sulli lynx,” he breathed as he drew close, the smell of smoke and alcohol hitting her. “You look very familiar, we must have met somewhere else…” he slyly raised an eyebrow at her as he smirked.

Inej froze. She couldn’t open her mouth to speak. Couldn’t look at him properly. Everything in her body screamed at her to do something, to yank her arm away, to scream, to whirl on him and beat him up, to run. But it was as if she was stuck in a cube of ice. His hand was suffocating her arm and her stomach twisted with nausea as he felt her arm.

Whoosh! Crack! A flurry of movements, and then her arm was released. Another hand (a gloved one) jerked her other arm forward and away from the now screaming man, who had a bloodied nose and was holding his wrist to his chest.

“Let’s go.” A rough voice wrenched her away. She finally blinked. Kaz. He had struck the guy with his sharp cane. Now he was briskly pulling her on, and coolly ignoring the screaming curses directed to him from behind. A few looks from others darted in their direction.

As soon as they arrived at the next block, Kaz released her and let out a breath, his own hand twitching uncomfortably. Inej was still trembling. It felt like there were eyes everywhere, watching her. She longed to grab Kaz’s hand and hold on to him, but she steeled herself. She needed to learn to be braver and more independent. As she replayed the incident in her head, she cursed herself for acting so pathetically. She couldn’t believe she how helpless she really was. No doubt Kaz was also judging her and losing respect for her. She wasn’t a child, she was old enough to be able to defend herself, and yet...

Finally, they reached Kaz’s car. Kaz muttered something about car scratches on the other side that Inej didn’t quite catch. Inej fumbled to open the car door. When she sat in the car and closed the door, some of the anxiety faded away. Car. Kaz. Safe.

Kaz sat for a moment, too. He had been silent the entire time. He turned to look at her, like he was assessing her condition. His eyes were calm, but not filled with sympathy. “How do you feel?” he said at last.

She swallowed. “Fine.”

“You can’t freeze like that whenever this happens. You have to fight back. Knee him in the groin, maybe. Or just yell in his face to startle him. How do you think you’ll ever supposed to survive outside on your own?.” Was he angry with her?

All she could manage was, “I know.” And then, “Thank you.”

Kaz just started the engine, and Inej imagined that he mentally acknowledged her.


---------------------------------------------------------


Several days passed, and Inej grew accustomed to her routine. Wake up, eat breakfast, get dropped off at The Kaelish Prince, work (clean cat litter, scrub enclosures, pet dogs, talk to Jesper, Specht, and Rotty), go home, eat dinner, read books, sleep. Nina would drop by with more gifts, and Inej now had a box full of her new belongings next to the futon where she slept. Inej loved Nina’s small, silly gifts. Things like fruity lip balm, pink headband, sweater with the words Girl Power! at the front… They meant a lot to her.

It also came to her knowledge that there was a large library in the city.

“Can you take me there tomorrow?” Inej had asked Kaz.

“We have plenty of books at home.”

“I flipped through all your economic books. They’re too boring. Also I’m almost done with Sherlock Holmes. Come on."

Kaz had sighed. “I take you to work everyday, give you food, let you sleep here, put up with your annoyingness...”

Yet two days later, Kaz had drove there after picking Inej up. They had checked out at least ten books, and Kaz had made Inej carry all of them to pay for making him stay there for almost an hour.

She and Kaz had grown comfortable with each other, or as comfortable the two can be with people. Perhaps it was the mutual reassurance that both of them would respect each other’s spaces. He strongly disliked human touch, for example. That must have been why he wore gloves all the time, even at home. Maybe he only started wearing them at home because she was there. There was still a lot that they didn’t know about each other, but neither of them were inclined to open up to the other person.

Inej felt blessed with her new friends, but it wasn’t always perfect. Going outside was always a risk. There was always a chance that she would bump into one of the people that had known her. Why did she have to stay in the same city? And live in one of the apparently sketchier neighborhoods?

Work was stressful, but fun. She liked listening to Jesper and Rotty argue and liked listening to Specht telling her the random animal facts he knew.

“Why does Kaz always wear gloves?” Inej inquired while brushing a tangled mess of a shih tzu.

“Beats me,” Jesper replied. “I’m like, his only friend, and even I don’t know.”

“I don’t think he likes skin contact.”

“Yeah, something like that. I mean look at him. He’s haunted. It’s probably PTSD from his past life.”

“PTSD?” Inej echoed. She had learned Kerch pretty quickly ever since arriving in Ketterdam, but she couldn’t guess the words that weren’t used everyday.

Specht looked up. “Post traumatic stress disorder. When something terrible happens to someone, and the event stays with them forever.”

PTSD… Inej knew that word in Sulli. This is what it sounds like in Kerch. Do I have PTSD? She wondered.

Kaz always wore gloves and was cold to everyone, although he wasn’t an evil person ( I think?  Hopefully not, since I live with him). He kept closely to himself and never expressed anything about himself. Did it have to do with his broken leg? Well, she wasn’t going to dwell on it. He respected her privacy, so she’ll respect his. Although the way he looked at her after that night going out made her feel like he was seeing right through her.

She went back to doing her work. It was a peaceful afternoon. The cats were dozing off at the windowsills. The dogs were laying around, watching Inej with distrust. She and Specht were giving all of them baths today, and they were still not over it.

She heard a gasp from Jesper. “Inej,” Jesper whispered excitedly, “Look who came here.”

She slowly turned to the entrance, and saw Specht greeting the Fjerdan man and the red haired boy from the restaurant.

Jesper smoothed down his uniform and straightened. “Gotta make this count. Dang, Nina should be here too. She is almost better than me at flirting.”

The red haired boy jumped back when the poodle started bouncing near him. The Fjerdan man snorted at him as he started petting the dog affectionately. The red haired boy went to go pet a cat, which he seemed like a lot better. Dog person, cat person.

Jesper flashed his “signature smile” at them once they made their way to the counter. “Good day, fine fellas! We hope you enjoyed our awesome creature friends.” He wiggled his eyebrows at them.

Rotty glanced up at the sky as he was arranging the cookies, as if praying to Ghezen that Jesper doesn’t embarrass everyone.

Merchling blushed and muttered to Druskelle that he’ll get whatever he gets. Druskelle (Inej knew that nickname was kinda racist, but he looked just like a druskelle, and even some of the customers gave him nervous glances) studied the menu, then said, “Two ‘kitty lattes’?” His voice was quiet and deep with a hint of a Fjerdan accent.

“Alrighty.” Jesper winked at Red Face, who shoved his hands into his pockets and scowled at the cake on display. “And what do you wonderful gentlemen go by?”

“Matthias and Wylan.” Inej laughed in her head. Normally customers were charmed by Jesper’s charisma, but this guy was not having it.

Jesper was unperturbed by Matthias’s poker face. “Two kitty lattes for Matthias and, how do you spell that Wylan?”

Wylan looked as if his plan of not speaking to anyone in the cafe was ruined. He cleared his throat and looked up at the ceiling. “W, Y, L, uh, A… N.” Judging by his light voice, he was probably younger than Inej. Jesper would be so disappointed if he was underage. Actually, Inej wouldn't be surprised if Kerch didn't even have laws on that.

“Thank you very much.” Jesper breezed away to complete the order.

In attempt to save any more awkwardness from himself, Wylan went to look at Plumje. “Hello,” he said.

“Hello,” Plumje echoed back, cocking her head.

Wylan’s eyes widened with surprise. Matthias strode over. “That’s quite a smart bird.”

Wylan sniffed. “My stepmother has a bird like that. They’re creepy.”

Plumje stretched her body haughtily at him, sizing him up. “Watch out,” she cawed.

Wylan paled and inched away. “I-I’m sorry…”

Inej chuckled. “She doesn’t mean it to you. She says that to everybody.”

He shuddered. “Well, I still wouldn’t risk getting on her bad side.”

“She will never forgive you for saying that,” Matthias smirked. Now that they were in front of her, Inej admitted that the pair were indeed good looking, but in completely opposite ways.

“Two “kitty lattes” for Matthias and Wylan!” Jesper called out. As he handed Wylan his cup, he not so subtly brushed his hand, which caused Wylan to awkwardly stammer out a ‘thank you’ and almost spill his cup.

As the two sat to enjoy their coffees, Jesper went back to his spot behind the cash register. He watched Wylan with a dreamy look on his face. “I’m gonna ask for his number,” he murmured.

Specht sighed. “For the sake of your employment, please do not .”

“How am I supposed to get to know him if I can never approach him?” Jesper demanded. “I’m lucky he even came here at all. Ughhh, I should have talked to him that day at the restaurant.”

“Just let it go, man,” Rotty said.

“Do y’all not have sympathy for a man who is falling in love?”

“This is only the second time you’ve seen him,” reminded Inej. “It doesn’t look like he likes your attention, by the way.”

“He’s just shy. Once I spend more time with him, he’ll fall in love with me too.”

Rotty almost crushed the cookie in his hand. “Jesper, I sWEAR to Ghezen--”

“Maybe Kaz can track him down?” Specht suggested. “So we don’t have to do this during work and risk getting fired.”

Jesper brightened. “Holy crap, you’re right. Kaz can find everything about him.” Then muttered, “It’s not gonna come free though.”

“Uh…” Inej looked at them. “Is this within the law?”

Rotty chortled. “Girl, in this country, the law is profit.” He glared at Jesper. “Although this specific situation has nothing to do with profit. You are kidding, right?”

Jesper would have argued more, but there was another customer to attend to. He slumped. “Yeah, I’m joking. He’s just really good looking to me.”


____________________________________________________________



“Guess who we saw at the cafe today.”

Kaz was focused on his computer. “Those two guys. Jesper told me about it. Wants me to look up the merchling.”

“Are you going to do it for him?”

“I’ll see what he can do for me first.”

Unsurprising response. “You all are weird.”

“I know everything seems shocking when you first arrive in Ketterdam, but trust me, you’ll get used to it. And learn to love it.”

Inej narrowed her eyes at him. Something about his words and the way he said them made her skin crawl. “Learn to love what?”

“This glorious city, honey.”

“Glorious? You think that the illegal things going on everywhere is glorious?”

Kaz leaned back and laughed. He laughed at her.

“You think that you doing these dangerous things with your computer and all the evil people outside doing worse things is all glorious? Does it ever disgust you?”

Kaz shook his head and tutted. “Oh, you are such a child, Inej. You have so much more to explore. And so much more to experience. Eventually, you’ll forget the meaning of ‘evil’.”

How had she ever thought that he was capable of decency? Those occasional acts of niceness, what did they even mean to him? “How are Nina and Jesper even friends with you?” she snapped.

He gave her a diabolic smile, and it struck Inej that it was similar to the first smile he gave her when he saved her on the bridge. “Easy. They need me, and I benefit from them. It’s, what do you call it in biology? Symbiasis? Symmeterosis?”

“Symbiosis,” she gritted out at him, and abruptly turned away. She couldn’t stand there with him anymore, because she was dangerously close to asking him questions that she wasn’t ready to know the true answers of.

Also, curse his stupidly small apartment. They were both in the living room, and the only other room she was allowed to enter was the bathroom. True, she’s lost most of her self respect, but she was not going to hide in the bathroom from him. She stomped to the kitchen and wedged herself against the windowsill, putting her head in her arms. She half expected Kaz to come and apologize to her, but he didn’t. She knew he wasn’t the type of person to apologize.



_____________________________________________________________



When Inej woke up, she saw that it was only 4:00 a.m. And then she heard muffled noises coming from Kaz’s bedroom. Saints, is he okay? He was either having a nightmare or doing something else that she did not want to walk in on. She crept to his door and listened. It sounded more like the former. When she opened the door, she saw Kaz laying on his side, covers thrown on the floor. He was jerking and repeatedly saying something incoherent. Inej slowly put a hand on his shoulder, and it was only due to her amazing reflexes trained from a life on stage that Kaz did not manage to send her sprawling when he swung his arm without warning.

“It’s just me,” she gasped. “Kaz. Are you okay?”

“Fucking hell,” he growled. “Two nights in a fucking row. The fuck.

“Nightmares?”

A slight nod.

She almost reached out to put an arm on his back, but wisely decided not to. “At least you woke up right when you’re supposed to.”

He glanced at his digital clock and snorted, running his hands into his hair. Inej’s eyes widened at those hands she had never seen before. They were long and bony, and the moonlight made them look pale and glowy. There was so much character to them, and Inej suddenly longed to know everything that happened to him that led him to the way he was right now.

Kaz noticed her staring, and folded his hands away under the sheets. “I told you not to go in my room.” No doubt angry that she could see so much of his vulnerability. Please Kaz, you can trust me. 

Inej looked away. “I was worried. I get nightmares too.”

“I know,” he said. “I hear you at night. There’s nothing to do about them, except to let them pass.”

They stared at each other. Inej saw a burning anger in his eyes, and the intensity of it touched her. She waited for him to say something, to tell her about his demons so that she could tell him about hers, but neither of them were about to open that tightly secured door.

His phone started ringing on the night table. Inej, who was closer to it, picked it up and looked at the screen.

“It’s Jesper,” she said.

Kaz closed his eyes and put a hand to his temple.

“... Are you going to answer it?”

“What are the chances that it’s actually something important?” Kaz grumbled.

Inej answered for him and put it on speaker. “Hey Jesper, it’s Inej. Kaz is next to me.”

“Inej, Kaz,” Jesper’s usually cheery tone was gone. “Whatcha guys doin’?”

Did something come up? “Nothing,” she glanced at Kaz, “Is everything all right?”

“Oh yeah, everything’s fine,” his voice was uncharacteristically flat, “Except Nina’s at the hospital, and I’m with her right now.”

Nina .

Kaz grabbed his phone. “What’s going on?”

There was some noise from the other side. “Ghezen, I’m gonna kill this bastard… He will fucking pay for this...”

Inej had never expected to hear such fury from him. “Jesper?” she said, her panic rising at every millisecond.

Kaz ordered, “Jesper. Talk.”

Jesper sucked in a short breath. “Remember the Fjerdan guy from the restaurant?”

Chapter Text

He is the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen.

Nina couldn’t stop thinking about him. Fantasizing about him. She had never been so obsessed with a guy before, or even a girl (does Zoya count?) , and it was driving her insane. She knew she was being dumb. And yet, as she sat in her microbiology class, she couldn’t stop her mind from drifting back to him. Stupid. She didn’t even know him. He could very well be one of the worst kinds of druskelle who would burn her alive. But if he is a druskelle, then what is he doing here?

It doesn’t matter. Stop thinking about him.

“Hey idiot, focus on your work,” Genya snapped. Nina quickly diverted her eyes back at her worksheet. “Cranial nerves,” she said out loud.

“Thinking about a boy?” Genya asked sweetly.

Nina gripped her pen. “No.”

“Girl, I know when you’re lying. Who is it now? It’s not the same guy that you went out with last month right? He was a douchebag.”

“Of course not, Genya...”

“Then who is it now?”

“Nothing,” she muttered. “Just saw a random good looking stranger.”

“Oh wow,” said Genya. “What a pity.”

What a pity indeed. Perhaps the reason that she was so drawn to him was because of the impossibility of people like them being together. They were two people born on opposite sides of the political and biological ridge that separated them, so how could they ever hope to meet and fall in love and get married and have cute babies together?

“Saints, Nina,” Genya groaned, “You really think too far ahead.”

Nina blinked. “Fuck, did I just say that out loud?’

“Yes, you did.”

“Oof,” said Nina, and then they both burst out laughing.

“Okay but for real,” said Genya, “You really need to study right now because you really need to do well on the test tomorrow. After tomorrow you can start having your thirsty thoughts again.”

“I wish I could just see him right now,” Nina said, “So that I can stop thinking about what he looks like.”

“Okay, let’s just get this out. What does he look like? Describe him.”

“He’s…he’s a big muscular Fjerdan with long blonde hair, and---”

Genya held her hands up. “Woah there, did you just say Fjerdan?”

“...Yes.”

Genya’s easy going demeanor disappeared. “Goodness, Nina. Absolutely not. A Fjerdan? You have no idea who he is. He’s probably a Grisha hunter. I’m actually disappointed in you.”

Nina put her head in her hands. “Yeah yeah, I know. It’s nothing, I just think he’s really hot.”

Genya grabbed her hand. “Nina, promise me that you won’t try to seek him out. Or ever consider dating any Fjerdan guy.”

“Okay, I promise that I will never thirst after Fjerdan guys.”

 

____________________________________________________________

 

The Next Day

 

____________________________________________________________

 

 

“That was pretty easy,” said Genya as she and Nina walked out of their university. “I thought Ketterdam education standards were high, but Ravka still tops when it comes to medicine.”

Nina tossed her hair dramatically. “The world can insult us all they want, but we’re still superior.”

Genya laughed. “Damn right. Well, I have to go now. Gotta prepare for the party tonight.”

“You're ridiculous. It’s only four right now, and the party starts at eight.”

“Excuse me. I have to do a lot of shopping. A cute stadwatch I met a couple days ago is going to be there, so I have to express my full personality.”

Nina raised an eyebrow at her friend. “So you were lecturing me about about men when you were literally flirting with the police?”

“I never said I was flirting! And I don’t think he’s an actual stadwatch , he seems more like a tech guy. He’s also Ravkan.” Genya gave Nina a pointed look.

Nina was about to retort, but Genya had flounced away.

 

______________________________________________

~

Nina had expected a slightly smaller party, only with the university students, but it seemed like half the city was in the building. All kinds of young Ketterdam people were here: stressed students, posh young entrepreneurs, hipstery artists, scruffy looking factory workers, and every race was present. A couple girls from the West Stave sat at a table, trying to catch the eyes of passersby. A few boys in leather jackets lurked in a corner. Nina was pretty sure that they were gang members. And in the corner of her eye, a group of Fjerdan men guffawed.

The bass was deafening. Nina edged into a quieter room to let her ears recover. The music was, and there was no better way of describing it, trashy. Nina longed for the more elegantly composed music from her days back in the Second Army, and the parties at Little Palace -- the beautiful orchestra, the rich voice of the soprano singer, the marble floors, and the white and gold ceilings -- instead of this crazy  offbeat yelling coupled with electronically produced sounds in this ugly, too-tight dark room. One good thing she could give Ketterdam, at least, was the diversity and mingling of social classes.

“Nina!!” Genya shouldered her way toward her, pulling someone along by their hand. “There you are! David, this is my friend Nina. Nina, this is David, the guy I was telling you about.” She winked.

So this was the cute Ravkan stadwatch (?) that Genya was excited about, although Nina personally wouldn’t use the word “cute” to describe him. He was even paler than Kaz and his arms were reed thin sticks. His eyes were framed by a pair of thick, black glasses. There were circles under his eyes and he looked like he’d rather be anywhere else than at a dumb party.

“David, a pleasure,” Nina greeted him in Ravkan in her fake friendly voice.

He only gave a curt nod in return, barely even looking at her as his attention shifted across the room. His fingers tapped his thigh restlessly.

Genya leaned toward him and said quietly in Ravkan, “Nina is a Corporalnik.”

At that, his eyes darted back to Nina with interest. “Ah. Good health to the the king and queen.”

“With a light heart,” Nina replied.

“And a heavy fist,” he murmured, completing the code shared among all Ravkans. Indeed, fellow patriot.

“So, how did you and Genya meet?”

Genya blushed. “I accidentally knocked him over on the subway and all his papers went flying. It was pretty embarrassing.”

Genya might have looked like a beautiful maiden with her rosy cheeks to anyone else, but there wasn’t a single hint of emotion coming from this guy. Nina squinted at them. 

As those two went off to go talk about the glorious nation Ravka, Nina moved through the party, chatting with her fellow classmates and smiling at strangers. A serving boy passed by, a platter of tarts in his hand. Nina reached for one at the same time another burly hand went for the plate. Their eyes met. A big, tan Fjerdan.

The Fjerdan from the restaurant.

And now Nina was right in front of him. She was actually the same height as him, but he was even muscular up close. There was nothing aesthetic about his face; he was all rough uneven edges, yet the shadowy, deep set eyes and unshaven cheeks made Nina’s heart do a somersault.

They had met again. They were here, at this party. This was the chance to make him fall in love with her. Nina perked up her back and gave him a dazzling smile. “Oh! Hello again!”

He narrowed his eyes at her. “Have we met before?”

Fuck. “Uh- Yes, we have! At a restaurant! Remember? It’s okay if you don’t remember. I’m Nina. Let’s get to know more about each other.” She extended her hand out to him. Why am I screwing up right now? I’m usually the smooth one.

He looked her up and down slowly. He must have liked the way she looked, for his eyes lingered a second longer at her cleavage. Nina preened with satisfaction. His attention moved back to her face. Nina fluttered her eyelashes.

“You are Ravkan,” he stated.

 She gave a coy smile. “Yes, and you are Fjerdan.”

He stepped closer to her, their chests only inches apart. “You are a Grisha.”

Confidence. Think confidence. I am hot and unattainable and I get to flirt with whomever I please but I am also loyal to my country. My life does not have to be ruled by politics. Flushing under the heat of his gaze and body, she lifted her chin. “I am a medical student at Ketterdam University. All the other students know that.”

He chuckled a low laugh, and leaned even closer to her, his hand closing around her arm. Nina’s heart raced. She could feel his hot breath against her ear, and the warm grip on her bicep. This might actually happen.

He whispered, “You and all your friends are the scum of this earth.”

She abruptly drew back, but he still had her arm. “Excuse me?”

He laughed. “Go back to your hellhole of a country, little witch.”

“Who do you think you are,” she seethed, “Trying to intimidate random girls at a party using your barbaric ways?”

He sneered, his grip tightening at every word. “You are not a normal girl, and the best treatment you would deserve is to be burned on a pyre.”

Her patience snapped. She stomped her heel into his foot and twisted her arm away from him, giving him a hard smack in his hand as she did. Suddenly there was less conversation around them, as people stopped to look. She towered over him and said angrily, “I am proud to not to be part of a sadistic culture that inhumanely tortures others who are different.”

His eyes widened with anger. “You’re calling us inhumane? You Grisha are the ones who are not human.”

“At least we were born with morals!” she shouted. She spun around and walked off. She was done with this party. People gaped at her as she made her way to the exit.

The air was a bit better outside. Nina sighed into the night. So much for being confident. Genya was right. She was a fool for even considering a Fjerdan. They could not be reasoned with. Might as well just stick to Ravkan boys. Or, maybe just pay more attention to women. Well, she learned her lesson. She took out her phone and texted Genya that she was leaving early because she didn’t feel well, and made her way towards her dorms. A faint memory resurfaced.

 

"You're too loud," scolded Zoya. "You draw too much attention."

"I am not loud! And you draw attention too, you're like the most beautiful person in this entire nation."

Zoya glared at her. "Don't compare yourself with me. You tend to stir up trouble and get into fights."

"That was just a couple times--"

"Nina," the healer chided as his hand hovered over her bruise. "It's good that you're brave and willing to fight. But you needn't waste your time trying to attack every insult thrown at you."

"If you keep acting like this, you'll never be promoted or succeed in a mission." 

 

After walking a block, she had the eerie sense that she was being followed. She turned around. No one too close behind her. She quickened her pace.

Then, she heard low snickers. They could just be her imagination. She continued to fast walk, but every creak and gust of wind seemed to be amplified. After half a block, she paused to listen for more sounds.

She should have just kept walking.

“Where do you think you’re going, little witch?”

She jumped and suddenly she was with the four Fjerdans that she saw at the party. She was surrounded.

“Poor little witch,” one of them crooned, “Trying to find your way home?”

She tried to back away, but was met with a chest. “Don’t touch me,” she snarled.

“Aww, where are your friends? Who’s gonna save you now? Your precious Sankta?” They all laughed.

“I’m calling the police.” She attempted to raise her voice, hoping that other pedestrians would notice.

“Oh no, she’s gonna call the police,” another one of them mimicked. “Funny, I don’t see any stadwatch right now.”

She opened her mouth and was about to say something (she honestly didn’t know what) but the biggest one grabbed her shoulders and shoved her into the the dark alley next to them. She went flying into the ground and splashed in muddy water. Concrete scraped her cheek and nose. She tried to get up, but a jolt of pain shot through both of her knees. A boot smashed down her hand, but another pressed her head into the ground, muffling her scream. Various places in her body throbbed.

It was too dark. She couldn’t see their faces. She couldn’t even tell which direction was up. But she knew that she wasn’t going to go down without a fight. “You guys only prove what I just said earlier,” she gasped out. And steadily, she began to focus the energy in her body, opening the palm of her only functioning hand.

“You're not in the place to be talking,” one of them jeered. She could see his boot rising, aiming toward her temple. Right when her brain registered the beginning of the foward swing she made clenched her fist as tightly as she could. There were shouts of surprise as he crumpled down next to her with a cry.

Immediately a boot came down on her arm and a rod slammed into her wrist. She tried to scream again, but a hand covered her mouth.

“Nice try, Heartrender, but you’re outnumbered. Too bad both of your hands are broken, now there’s no way for you to mess with our hearts.”

“What if she could do the same with her toes?”

“I’m pretty sure they can only use their hands…”

“I wouldn’t risk it. Let’s break her feet too.”

Nina thrashed frantically. She had been told stories of the brave soldiers who survived the Civil War. Brave soldiers who stood against the Darkling. She had wanted to be like them: strong, defiant, and unyielding. But it was as if all of it had left her in a heartbeat.“Please,” she croaked.

“Begging now, are we? It’s a little too late for that.” One of them knelt in front of her and took out a long rope. “Do you know what this is, witch?”

It was a long handled whip with retractable cables. A recently crafted weapon, designed specifically to be used on Grisha. At that moment, Nina was ready to give up her entire nation to be out of this situation. “You- you guys are druskelle.”

He smiled. “We are holy soldiers, and we have a holy duty.”