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The Crows Remember

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They say that letting your guard down in the Barrel means that you’ve given up on life.

It was a rule Kaz had always lived by. But the thing about dropping your guard was that when it happened, it was because you’d grown too complacent or too tired to realise you’d done it in the first place. Kaz could give many explanations on why he’d let a contingent from the Black Tips get the drop on him, but they didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was that he’d been too damn careless, and carelessness always exacted a toll.

He gave as good as he got, but Geels hadn’t been stingy on the numbers he’d brought with him. Kaz broke a few bones, bashed a few heads, and he was pretty sure that Elian would never been able to see from that eye again, but in the end they still had him eating cobblestone.

“Look at the almighty Kaz Brekker,” Geels sneered. “Not so mighty after all.”

Geels’ boot connected with Kaz’s jaw and pressed down, squashing Kaz’s face against wet stone. Kaz bit his tongue and his mouth filled with a metallic tang. Geels kept gloating to his posse and they laughed with him, throwing in a few barbs of their own. Kaz ignored them, too focused on getting himself out of that sticky spot. He had a blade, which Inej had given him, hidden inside his left boot, but in order to reach it he needed to contort himself in a way that would make it obvious that he was trying to do something. So he moved slowly, slowly, slowly, letting the Black Tips prattle away in the hope that none of them would notice he still had an ace up his sleeve. Or, maybe not an ace, but that he wasn’t yet beaten down.

“You aren’t much without your Wraith, are you, Brekker?” Geels said. “Guess even she finally could see you for the pathetic rat you are.”

Kaz didn’t flinch. That didn’t mean he couldn’t feel the prick of Geels’ words. They weren’t true, but they weren’t exactly untrue either.

“I heard your most faithful lieutenant left you too!” Geels went on, clearly feeling on a roll. “Shacking up with that mercher’s son, last I heard, even though everyone could tell how thirsty he was for your dick.”

Raucous laughter trailed Geels’ declaration. I will first carve up his tongue, Kaz thought, hand creeping down his leg. Then I’ll use the tip of the blade to pop his eyes out of their sockets.

“Hey, look at him!” one of the Black Tips shouted. “What’ya trying to do, Brekker?”

They picked him up by the collar of his coat and shoved him against the nearest building, so hard it kicked the breath out of his lungs. Two Black Tips held his arms while another patted him down, plucking the blade out of his boot. As they manhandled him, he could feel their hands brush against patches of his exposed skin in nauseating flashes. He contained a shudder by biting the inside of his cheek, the sound of water rushing in his ears.

“What’s that?” Geels taunted, waving the blade in front of Kaz’s nose. “Is it Dirtyhands’ last trick? What does it feel to know that you’re going to die here, all alone?”

Everyone dies alone, Kaz wanted to say. And I’ve been alone for years anyway.

But he knew that last part wasn’t the whole truth.

---

She’d been a little thing wrapped in purple silk, but he’d known right away that she had something special. It was a talent of his, to be able to recognize when he’d gotten his hand on a real gem.

It took Inej a while to acclimate to the Dregs and life as a street rat in the Barrel. Not to the job part—she was the best thief of secrets he’d ever seen, almost right away—but to the immoral aspect of the life they led. She was a good person thrown in a shit situation, and she’d remained a good person throughout it all. She was quick to flash her blades if someone got too close and personal, but she was always careful not to hurt anyone too badly. It fascinated Kaz and angered him in equal measures. Surely this couldn’t last. She would eventually get dragged down in the mud with the rest of them.

They cruised the Barrel’s streets together as he taught her the lay of the land. At the time, the Dregs hadn’t been as respected and feared as they got later on, and more often than not they found themselves in a bit of a scrap on those nights. Inej was always way too soft on the podges who attacked them. Kaz kept telling her that she should give them more of a severe beatdown to remember her by, but she didn’t get the purpose of what she called ‘pointless’ violence. What she didn’t understand was that violence always had a point in the Barrel.

That bad habit caught up with them one night, after they’d gotten jumped by a couple of Razorgulls. The guys were drunk and sore from their losses at one of the gambling dens, and they’d obviously thought that beating down two fifteen-year-olds would be an easy way to unwind. Fortunately, being in their cups made them clumsy and overconfident. The youngest of them split fast after he’d gotten a taste of Kaz’s walking stick. Inej soon got another one at knife point.

“I’m going to let you go,” she said in that calm, collected tone of hers. It was the line she always gave people who attacked her. “Consider yourself lucky.”

Kaz could tell it was a mistake even before he saw the glint of the guy’s knife going for Inej. He stepped up, slamming down the guy’s wrist with his cane, but that meant he had to turn his back on the Razorgull he’d been wrestling with. He got a punch in the kidney for his trouble and grunted in pain, then felt the displaced air from a blade that flew past his face. He heard a short, interrupted gurgle, and when he turned around he saw the Razorgull sprawled on his back, a knife jutting out of his throat and dark blood dripping from the wound. Another knife sat in the middle of his open palm.

Kaz looked back at Inej. In the darkness her face was pale and indistinct, as though covered with the veil from the Lost Bride’s costume. She kept still and silent for an unnervingly long moment; words rolled on the tip of Kaz’s tongue but wouldn’t come out. He didn’t know whether they were words of comfort or of reproof for her carelessness. Neither option seemed quite right for the situation.

The guy who’d tried to stab her and whom Kaz had hit was holding his wrist against his stomach and uttering a stream of muffled curses. Inej turned to him and said in a very soft voice. “Run.”

The guy had the good sense to do what she said. As Kaz and Inej walked back to the Slat and Inej didn’t speak at all, Kaz felt once again that frustrating, impotent need to say or do something to smooth her transition from a non-killer to a killer. Eventually she would get used to it, as they all did, but a first kill was a shock. In the face of Inej’s frozen silence, there wasn’t any satisfaction to have in the fact that Kaz had been right—in the end, the Barrel’s murkiness had smeared Inej and her Saints too.

“You did good, Wraith,” he finally told her. “That man could have killed me.”

“I know,” she said. She sounded fragile, unlike herself; Kaz wanted to resurrect that Razorgull piece of shit and stab him again. “I know,” she repeated, more firmly this time. “I couldn’t let him.”

As it turned out, Kaz was only half-right about the effect that first kill had on Inej. She killed again, became more ruthless, but that only scratched her core of goodness. The faith she had in her Saints didn’t seem to wane, a flame that burned eternal. Kaz couldn’t decide whether to hate it or envy it.

---

“That was a foolish risk to take, Jes,” Kaz said.

Jesper flashed him a brilliant smile, his cheeks still flushed from the excitement of the fight. He gave his pistols a twirl and sheathed them back, then rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet.

“Foolish is what I do best,” he said, his smile deepening as he winked at Kaz.

There were moments when Kaz thought that Jesper was trying to flirt with him. It was all right, as Jesper had enough sense not to go too far with it or build his hopes up. The loyalty that came attached to it was worth more than what the Dregs who’d grown up in the Barrel could muster, something genuine and true. Even having been in Ketterdam for ten months, Jesper still had that wide-eyed, fresh-from-the-farm enthusiasm to him—it sometimes conjured up the image of two similar boys who’d both been crushed by Ketterdam the greedy, but Kaz was careful to always push it away.

“You mad man!” Big Bolliper bellowed. “There were ten of them and you skinny, cocky son of a bitch just looked the tallest right in the eye and fired the first shot!”

“Next time, take it outside,” Kaz said.

He pinched his mouth as he eyed the damage to the Crow Club—toppled tables, a few broken chairs, some tears in the black and red wall covering. Nothing that a couple hours of tidying up wouldn’t fix, but big fights scared off patrons. This fight wasn’t entirely, or even mostly, Jesper’s fault, but this wasn’t a thing to encourage.

He saw Jesper flinch at the rebuttal and pretended he hadn’t. Loyalty and respect were good, useful qualities in an underling, but Jesper took everything Kaz said to heart. This wasn’t something Kaz wanted to encourage either.

“Let me get you a drink, Fahey,” Big Bolliger said. “You deserve it.”

He roared with laughter, calling Jesper ‘one lucky son of a bitch,’ then gave Jesper a punishing slap on the back. Jesper flinched again and stumbled, which made Pim and Anika laugh too. Kaz rolled his eyes and turned away, his mind already on the orders he should give to get the room fixed up fast enough to be able to open tonight.

“Hey, Jesper, you all right?” Anika asked.

There was enough alarm in her voice to pull Kaz out of his thoughts. He looked back at Jesper, whose face had turned grey, all the blood drained from it. Jesper could usually take one of Big Bol’s mighty backslaps without any issue. Kaz, as well as everyone else, had assumed he was being theatrical with his reaction.

Kaz took one step forward. Big Bolliger said, “Hey, is that blood?” right when Kaz noticed the widening crimson spot that spread on the side of Jesper’s gaudy waistcoat.

“You idiot, he’s fainting!” Kaz snarled at Big Bolliger. He stepped further and caught Jesper before he fell on his face.

Jesper went limp in his arms, face pressed against his neck. It made Kaz’s skin crawl, but he’d had a a split-second to brace himself for the contact and managed to rein in the urge to shove Jesper off him. Big Bolliger was looking at Kaz and Jesper’s awkward embrace with his big, dumb face, as if he were wondering how they’d gotten in that position.

“Fetch a medik!” Kaz ordered him, uttering a string of filthy curses in his mind. “Saints, Bol, make yourself useful!”

The order had been aimed at Big Bolliger, but it made Pim and Anika snap to attention too. They relieved Kaz of his burden and carried a half-conscious Jesper to one of the tables that were still upright.

“Keeg, come here!” Kaz called, snapping the fingers of his left hand. His right hand clenched around the crow handle of his cane, making the leather of his glove creak. “Keep pressure on the wound,” he said to Pim and Anika. Jesper’s eyelids fluttered as he fought to stay conscious.

Keeg trotted up to Kaz, the constipated look on his face a sign that he knew he was in trouble, but wasn’t sure why.

“Yeah?” he said, glancing quickly at where Jesper was lying, then away, swift and shifty.

“Weren’t you supposed to search people for weapons?” Kaz asked. A sharp edge of cold was digging into his lungs and it made him sound as cold as a frozen river. “Armed fights are bad for business. You’re lucky Jesper was the one who got hurt, and not one of our patrons.”

Keeg shifted from one foot to the other. He wasn’t particularly smart, but he had the keen survival instinct of someone born and bred in the Barrel. He obviously wasn’t fooled by Kaz’s calm tone or by the claim that he was ‘lucky.’

“Sorry,” he finally said after what looked like long and deep inner deliberation. “Must’ve had a pen knife up his sleeve or something.”

Kaz took a deep breath and released it slowly. The few seconds it took him to do that seemed to set Keeg on edge, his brow rippling from the tension. Kaz closed a fist and swung it at Keeg’s face, sending him tumbling backward against a table behind him.

“You find me the bastard who had a knife,” Kaz told him coolly, “and you bring him to me. You do that, and I might just find it in me to be merciful about your mistake.”

Clutching his sore jaw, Keeg stared at Kaz for a few heartbeats, then jumped when Kaz hit on the floor with his cane. Another hard look and he was out of the door as though he had a horde of demons from hell on his heels.

Big Bol came in about ten minutes later with in tow Derrik Vos, a medik with a gambling habit that kept him indebted to the Dregs. Kaz stayed and watched over the man as he dressed Jesper’s wound—Derrik also had a drinking habit and it made him sometimes clumsy. As soon as Derrik assessed that Jesper would be fine, Kaz gave a few snappy orders for him to be carried to the Slat and bundled up in his bed, before turning on his heels and exiting the Crow Club.

The cold outside was of the damp, insidious kind. The cold inside Kaz was hard and thorny, like an ice crystal. He’d never been to Fjerda, but it felt like he imagined a glacier would. He decided it was anger—anger at Keeg’s incompetence, at the man who’d brought a blade to the Crow Club, and at Jesper for being brash and careless. He spent hours walking off the anger, until his bad leg was stiff and sore from it.

---

“What would be a fitting end for Dirtyhand?” Geels drawled. He twirled the knife in his hand. “Should I slit your throat with your own knife? Oh my, is this one of the Wraith’s knives?”

You talk too damn much, Kaz thought. He wouldn’t grace Geels with a reply. A sticky drizzle of rain was dampening his face like a sheen of sweat. His heart was pounding hard, though he wasn’t very afraid. He didn’t want to die, but he was accustomed to the idea. He’d died once already, after all, and dying from Inej’s blade didn’t sound like such a bad end.

---

She’d left Ketterdam very early one morning, under a blank, pallid sky. He’d been the last one to tell her goodbye—quite frankly, he hadn’t been sure until the last minute whether he would come. From the shadows he’d watched her exchange goodbyes with Jesper, Wylan and Wylan’s mother. Jesper had blubbered like a little kid, the sentimental idiot.

They left and Inej swept one last look at the docks. It was that look that made Kaz step out of the shadows, because he knew she was looking for him and he wouldn’t disappoint her. After everything that had happened between them—maybe not a lot by anyone’s standard, but a lot by theirs—he couldn’t let her leave on that note.

“What business?” he said, then cursed himself for saying something so inane.

She hadn’t been looking in his direction, but she didn’t startle at the sound of his voice. The person that would startle her probably wasn’t born yet. She took her time turning around, maybe because she needed to compose herself, or maybe because she wanted to pretend she hadn’t been waiting for him.

“I thought you would let me go without saying goodbye,” she said.

“The thought has crossed my mind,” he said.

“I know you don’t like goodbyes,” she said. “But thank you for coming.”

They stood in front of each other for a long moment, at a loss for words. He looked at the slant of her cheekbones, the arc of her brows, the fine hair that had escaped from her braid and formed a halo around her face. She’d said she’d be back, and he knew she would do her best to be true to her word, but life at sea was dangerous even when one didn’t purpose to hunt down slavers. His life wasn’t particularly safe either. Chances were high that one of them would be dead before they could meet again.

“I have to go now, Kaz,” she said, but she wasn’t moving.

“I know.”

Kaz stood perfectly still, but inside of him a war was raging. This may be the last time he’d see her. He needed to make it count. This should be easy. It would be easy for anyone else. Do it. Do it, you useless skiv!

He jerked himself into moving, going from stillness to action so fast that from a distance it must have looked like he was attacking her. He gripped one of her shoulders and brought their faces together, but he was so brusque about it that instead of the kiss he was going for the result was akin to a collision. Their lips and teeth smashed against each other. Kaz released Inej, stepping away from her in a hurry. He felt lightheaded and sick, his ears ringing like bells at a wedding. From head to toe a numbing cold overwhelmed him, while sweat broke out over his whole body. He was still standing but he felt like he might be falling.

“I’m sorry,” he said hollowly. Glancing at Inej, he saw her gingerly press a thumb against her lower lip as though feeling for a wound. Mortification was enough to pull him back from the brink. “I wanted—I shouldn’t have—”

She blinked at him and he held his breath for her reaction. He expected anger, he expected disappointment, he expected her turning her back on him and getting on her ship without another word to him. What she did, though, was burst out laughing. She laughed for a long while, shoulders shaking from it, a hand pressed against her mouth to muffle her sounds of mirth. He gaped at her, unsure how he should feel about the spectacle.

“Are you laughing at me?” he asked incredulously.

“I’m sorry,” she said. She took a deep breath, closed her eyes and ran a hand over them. When she opened her eyes again, they were still gleaming with mischief and maybe some tears. “I know what you were trying to do and I appreciate the thought. I know you’re trying hard, because you do everything the hard way. But I don’t want you to force yourself to kiss me.”

“I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to do it any other way,” he said stiffly, feeling the heat in his cheeks and hating it; he half-wished that she hadn’t stopped laughing, though, even if it was at his expense.

“Here’s to hoping, then.” She stooped and pulled a blade out of her left boot. “Take it,” she said. “Sankt Vladimir will watch over you when I can’t.”

“I can watch over myself.”

Inej smiled. He yearned to kiss her for real and was furious at the thought that if he tried it again now, he would likely disgrace himself by fainting. “I still want you to take it,” she said. “Anything that can give you an edge, right?” She kissed the handle before giving it to him. “Goodbye, Kaz. Now, shoo. I don’t want you to watch me leave; that’s what I told the others, too.”

He didn’t want to watch her leave either. If he didn’t, then he could pretend she wasn’t really gone.

---

He didn’t believe that it was a coincidence that Jesper showed up a few days later at the Slat. Because Kaz now occupied Per Haskell’s old office on the ground floor, he was warned of Jesper’s arrival by the chorus of “Jesper, what business?”, “Looking flush, Jesper!” from the Dregs that lounged in the entrance hall. Still, when Jesper knocked on his door, Kaz feigned ignorance.

“Who’s it?” he asked.

“It’s Jesper.” There was a pause, then Jesper added. “As if you didn’t already know it, you podge.”

“What’re you doing here?” Kaz asked Jesper once he’d entered. “Is Wylan all right?”

“Wylan’s great,” Jesper said, grinning.

The way he’d dressed looked like a compromise between the Barrel’s garish sense of fashion and a mercher’s sober looks. He wore dark burgundy trousers and a black jacket that opened on a cream-colored shirt and a golden-patterned waistcoat. His pistols hung at his sides ostentatiously—at least he’d had the sense not to come to the Barrel unarmed.

“Then why are you here?” Kaz repeated. He didn’t know why Jesper’s visit put him so much on edge, except he’d been on edge since Inej had left.

Jesper’s grin faded and his mouth pinched unhappily. “Inej said… that I’d been missed around the Slat, but apparently I’ve misunderstood the message.” He angled himself toward the door, as though he meant to leave, but instead he leaned his back against the wall.

“How’s business?” he asked.

Kaz interwove his gloved fingers. “Business is great, thanks for asking. The Crow Club’s benefits have tripled since Pekka Rollins has left the city.”

Jesper nodded along, probably already aware of it. “That’s great,” he said.

“And you know that if you show up at one of our gambling tables you’ll be kicked out at once.”

“I know, Dad,” Jesper said, scowling.

“Precisely. You don’t want your father to be mixed up in gang business again.”

“Point taken, thank you. You’re a bastard.”

“I try,” Kaz said evenly.

This made Jesper snort. Laughter echoed from outside and that drew his attention for a second, before he looked back at Kaz. His long fingers played restlessly with the buckle of his belt and his teeth worried his lower lip, as if he wanted to say something but wasn’t sure he should. Incongruously, this triggered Kaz’s memory of trying to kiss Inej the other day. He wondered how many times Jesper had thought about kissing him in the past. He wondered whether he was thinking about it right now.

“Do you really mean to completely cut me out from your life?” Jesper asked.

“Jesper.”

“That’s a fair question.”

“You shouldn’t—” Kaz cut himself off. He gathered the papers that were spread over his desk in a neat pile, giving himself time to think about what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it. He wasn’t in a position to give Jesper orders anymore. “I thought that getting together with Wylan meant that you were leaving that life behind you. You know how easily it can drag you back and you don’t want that. It has almost cost you everything.”

It should have been the end of that conversation and Kaz thought once again that Jesper was about to leave. For some reason, though, Jesper was digging his heels in.

“Can’t I just visit as a friend?” he said. “Or don’t I even count as a friend?”

The peculiar way he said the word ‘friend’ betrayed a depth of hidden layers. If it hadn’t meant walking past Jesper, Kaz would have left the room right then. They’d never broached that topic out loud. It had never mattered, how Jesper felt about Kaz, because Kaz and romance were as antithetic to each other as Grishas and Drüskelles. Now there was Inej, who had shattered that first notion, while Nina and Matthias proved the latter one wrong. Feeling something for Inej was so hard it continuously came close to breaking him. But emotions were like thieves; they tended to band together. Spot one, and chances were that others would be lurking in the shadows.

“You’re—" he said.

They’d worked together; they’d almost died together. Trust had been lost and found again. A word as casual and carefree as the word ‘friend’ didn’t quite seem to fit. Kaz had slipped up once and called Jesper with his brother’s name—was Jesper a replacement for Jordie? Was it as trite and stupid as that? Or was there something else? In another world, where touch came as easily to him as it did to other people, would he want Jesper to kiss him?

The effort to figure it out made Kaz furious, and instead of the composed answer he’d meant to give Jesper, he said snappishly, “You’re either one of us or you’re not, Jes. There’s no halfway.”

Jesper’s expressive face hid nothing of what he felt. This was why he’d always been such a bad gambler. “Sorry I wasted your time,” he muttered, storming out of the office.

Kaz didn’t watch him leave.

---

If Kaz had a regret, it was that Geels’ smug face would be the last thing he saw. He was tempted to close his eyes, but it seemed a cowardly thing to do.

“Any last word, Brekker?” Geels said.

You talk too damn much. Kaz smiled at Geels; he could feel that it wasn’t a nice smile, but then he’d lost the trick for smiling nicely years ago.

This made Geels frown. “What you grinning at, you pathetic rat shit?” he growled, pressing the tip of the blade against Kaz’s throat.

Was he disturbed? Kaz mused. Was he afraid? Whatever it was, the few seconds Geels wasted getting mad at Kaz rather than killing him cost him his life. A knife cut through the air and planted itself in Geels’ throat. Kaz took advantage of the distraction his death caused to grab the knife Geels hadn’t had time to drop. He stabbed one of the Black Tips holding him in the gut and kneed another in the balls, then staggered forward, cutting through the men and women Geels had brought with him.

A gun shot rang in the air and a blond woman dropped to the ground. Kaz planted his knife into a big burly man. He was running on adrenaline, his vision field shrunk to only the people in his immediate reach. His knife getting slippery with blood, Kaz kept stabbing and slicing. He used his fists, knees and elbows to pummel his opponents until there was no one standing next to him. He wavered, breathing hard. One of his eyes was closed from the swelling around it and he could barely see from the other one. His head hurt, and his ribs hurt, and his bad leg radiated with never-ending screaming agony. He wasn’t going to be able to walk away on it.

“Hey, Kaz, you all right?” Jesper’s voice, not that Kaz was surprised. He’d seen him silhouetted at the end of the alley.

“Here’s your cane.” Inej, this time. He hadn’t felt her get close at all. She placed the cane’s handle in his hand, but he couldn’t make his fingers move properly; some of them might have been broken.

“Kaz?”

Jesper or Inej, Kaz wasn’t sure anymore. The adrenaline rush that had sustained him through the fight was ebbing and he was fading fast. What little vision he had left darkened and he felt himself list to the side. Hands grabbed him and his instinctive response was to struggle, even though he didn’t have any strength left for it. He tried to pull away, even as searing pain stabbed through his chest. It became hard to breath and he gasped, tears leaking at the corners of his eyes. He was drowning; he could feel water close down on him and his lungs burned. He tried to scream and got a mouthful of water that tasted like decaying flesh. When he finally passed out, it came as a relief.

---

He woke up with a jolt of alarm, just from knowing that he’d been displaced. He knew where he was before he even opened his eyes, as his back recognized the hard mattress of his narrow bed.

Opening his eyes, though, proved to be a more arduous task than he’d expected. It felt like his eyelids had been glued together. He lifted a hand that weighed a hundred pounds and managed to make it crawl up to his face; he thankfully still had his glove on. His face felt tender when he poked at it. He touched one of his eyes and hissed in pain.

“Stop it, you’re going to hurt yourself worse.”

A small hand curled around his own and pulled it down. Kaz made another valiant effort at opening his eyes. He managed one and then could see Inej looking down at him, a worried crease between her eyebrows.

“Inej,” he croaked.

“Hey, he recognizes you! That’s a good sign, right?”

Kaz looked past Inej’s body. He was indeed in his room at the Slat, and Jesper was sitting on the chest where Kaz kept his clothes.

“Who am I, Kaz?” Jesper asked, only half-sounding like he was joking.

Kaz tried to make a rude gesture with the hand that Inej wasn’t holding, but found that three of his fingers were bandaged together. This hand didn’t have any glove on and Kaz stared at it for a moment, trying not to think about the fact that someone had needed to touch him to do it. Now that he was more awake, he could feel that his chest had been bandaged too. Looking down at his lying body with his good eye, he saw that his trousers had been cut and that pillows were stacked under his bad leg.

“I did it,” Inej said, having followed his look. “I had to. You’re pretty banged up.”

“It’s fine,” Kaz forced out.

His brain wasn’t working properly, because he was wondering only now what Inej and Jesper were doing here—or, better yet, what they’d been doing in the alley where Geels and his Black Tips had tried to kill him. The last time he’d seen Inej, she’d been embarking on her ship and sailing for the high seas. The last time he’d seen Jesper, he’d left Kaz’s office in a way that seemed to indicate he wouldn’t ever come back. Both of them had been better off, then.

“What—" he started, but it hurt to speak and he had to pause. Fortunately, Inej was reading his mind.

“I said I would come back, didn’t I?” She kneeled down by his bed, not letting go of his gloved hand. “I went to see Jesper and Wylan first, and—”

She looked back at Jesper, who stood up from the chest in one fluid motion. He came up to the bed and crouched next to Inej, casually bumping shoulders with her.

“I heard rumours that Geels still had it for you,” he said.

Kaz tried to lift an eyebrow, which made pain shoot through his skull. He’d heard rumours too, but it hadn’t sounded more alarming than the usual bluster.

“Okay, that’s not the whole truth,” Jesper amended. “Geels sent a few Black Tips after me, too. I guess it’s because I was there the day you ridiculed him, although frankly I didn’t do much. There weren’t a lot of them, and Wy and I fought them off easily.” Jesper’s lips slanted into a half-smile. “I probably didn’t rank very high in Geels’ preoccupations and I imagine he thought I’d gotten soft. Got me worried about you, though. Not that I think you can’t take care of yourself, but—”

“Obviously, I couldn’t,” Kaz said, then breathed through the pain in his jaw. He swallowed. “Thank you.”

Those two little words had Jesper beaming at him. It was so easy. Jesper had always expected so little from him, but Kaz had rarely been able to give him even that much. He wasn’t sure why; pretending to care wouldn’t have cost him a lot—but no, that was the hurdle right there. He wouldn’t have been pretending at all.

Inej’s smile was approving, which made Kaz want to scowl. He didn’t want to be condescended to like a child. Still, he hadn’t seen her for too long so he couldn’t help looking at her: her skin was darker and her hair lighter, bleached from the sun and the marine air. Her face was thinner, but her expression was more open. This is what she looks like when she’s away from me.

“You don’t have to stay,” he said, directing his good eye at the mottled ceiling. All of his wounds throbbed in time with his heartbeat.

“Oh, Kaz,” Inej said with a sigh.

“I’d punch you in the face if so many people hadn’t beaten me to it already,” Jesper said.

“Wylan will—”

“You let me worry about Wylan,” Jesper said sharply. “He understands more than you think. More that you do.”

Kaz glanced at him. Jesper had changed too, even if he hadn’t been at sea. It wasn’t just the clothes; there was a depth to his gaze that Kaz hadn’t noticed before.

“How did you get me up here?” he asked. He knew those crooked stairs intimately and could guess it hadn’t been easy to carry an unconscious guy up them.

Jesper’s smile came back, wide and vibrant. “I cradled you in my arms,” he said.

It surprised Kaz into choking on his own spit. The choking turned into a coughing fit, which was hell on Kaz’s hurt ribs. The pain was so great it made the next few seconds blur together in a sea of agony.

“Oh, Saints, Kaz, I’m sorry!” Jesper exclaimed. Even with both eyes squeezed shut Kaz could feel him hovering close, although he wasn’t making contact.

“Here, try to drink this.”

The light touch on his shoulder was Inej’s, and, strangely enough, it helped him relax. Kaz drank clumsily from the glass she was holding, his teeth knocking against the rim. It was only water, but it eventually got Kaz’s coughing under control. His ribs still burned like a lungful of acid, but the pain became manageable.

“You’re an idiot,” Inej told Jesper, giving the back of his head a slap.

“Hey, I was telling the truth! I did carry his heavy ass up the stairs.”

“You poor thing,” Inej mocked.

“He’s all bones, muscles and deviousness. That weighs a ton.”

As soon as he was done drinking Kaz laid his head back on his pillow, so exhausted it dulled the edge of everything else. There usually was a part of him that remained alert at all time, even when he slept, but he was feeling himself shutting down and knew he couldn’t do it now. It scared him. Even with his eyes closed, he tried to focus on Inej and Jesper’s voices as an anchor, but after a while their words stopped making sense and all he could hear was a meaningless rumble.

His thoughts weaved around their voices in a sluggish jumble. Inej had come back, as she’d promised she would. Jesper had come back too, even more unexpectedly. Are we friends? he’d asked Kaz. The answer was too complicated to untangle when Kaz’s brain felt like mush. He didn’t have a bottomless reserve of love that he could just let run free. His heart was a shrivelled thing that only had enough vitality to keep pumping. So why did other people keep pricking it?

Verbal thoughts escaped Kaz but images floated through his mind. Matthias and Nina lying down in the boat that had taken them away; he, dead, she, alive, and both of them utterly still. Wylan, facing his father, his battered face set into a determined expression. And Inej and Jesper, flying to his rescue when he’d thought he’d finally gotten to the end of his story. He could feel them leaning against his mattress, watching over him. In a world where touch came to him as easily as it did to other people...

He slept more soundly than he had in almost a decade.