The Wraith docked in the harbor today, its flag flying clean over berth twenty-two.
Kaz knew this because Anika had told him as much in her morning report, smirk tucked mischievously between two files on recent kidnappings.
He hadn’t seen the ship, but he could picture it: the mast still upright after eleven months, its three flying fishes torn from old skirmishes but sewn neatly together with careful stitches.
Kaz hadn’t reacted to the subtle lift of Anika’s eyebrows, the meaningful press of her words. He may be trying, but he was still the Dirtyhands that had broken in and out of the Ice Court, who’d bested Jan Van Eck and Pecka Rollins in the same swoop. Leaving his vulnerabilities free for the picking would be foolish no matter the promises he’d made.
But Anika had left, and he’d paused over his ledger, unable to focus on the numbers and sums that usually came so instinctively. They swam, and in the waters he’d seen nimble feet, bronze skin, a figure against the Ketterdam skies.
It was a familiar ache, and he didn’t try to swallow it down the back of his throat today like he had yesterday, and all the days that came before, pushed aside for more pressing matters. A bitter pill for a chronic pain.
Today, he parsed it, this weight on his chest.
The ledge out his bedroom window, where crows gathered for a gentle hand that never came. The dock at Fifth Harbor, and the slide of a knuckle against a palm. How it’d felt to be standing over a yawning sea, bare and trembling against knowing eyes.
I will have you without armor, Kaz Brekker. Or I will not have you at all.
Nothing holds more relief than the harsh pants of a runner, haggard but triumphant during the last league of a race. No feeling more satisfying than the ache of a pain that’s about to be lifted.
Kaz thumbed browning pages with practiced fingers, and behind the numbers, the accumulating kruge, perused his own pain at his leisure.
The Wraith was coming home today.
Inej stepped off her ship and slipped on the skin of an older her.
Ketterdam looked the same in so many ways that tugged at her heart - the fingers of Ghezen at the Church of Barter, painted against the skyline; the wooden docks of Fifth Harbor, where Kaz earned enough kruge to prove himself something more than the scrapings of the Barrel.
But it was foolish of her to think the city would stagnate, forever a memory, until her return.
The Ketterdam she’d left behind had been hesitantly laying down the pieces of reconstruction, wary after the shaking of its bones. The Ketterdam before her was the fresh fruit borne of those seeds.
Already, she saw the new ships boasting the dark green flags of the Southern Colonies, and smelled the sweet fragrant scent of coconut - Ketterdam’s newest import. In the distance, the Kaelish Prince’s cheap emerald spires were replaced by scaffolding - a construction site where the old dump had been torn down.
But the girl who’d arrived today was not the one who departed either, new scars lining her forearms, new wounds and new triumphs lining her memories. Her old skin belied the newer purpose, humming in her bones.
Yet what hadn’t changed was this: a compass in her ribs, pointing her here.
She slipped away after parting with her crew, feet light as she followed a familiar route through the Barrel.
There was an excitement to charting unknown waters, but there was a thrum of excitement here too: the feeling of Ketterdam saying welcome back, in the creaky roof of Hunter’s Bar, the slide of the pipes at the run-down inn where Kaz had sent her to spy on a past version of Wylan; younger, unhappier.
She’d had to exchange some of her knives for pistols in seafaring - there weren’t many short range battles to be had over dark seas. But she felt the reassuring press of them now, the cool length of Sankt Petyr and Sankta Alina against her arms.
She remembered Kaz saying there wasn’t safety to be had in the Barrel, but she felt its closest approximation: the knowledge that even the best killer wouldn’t be able to pin her down here without a fatal wound in their side.
The city sang for her: the bustle of too-busy streets, the call of loose morals, smoke thick in the afternoon air.
She hated this miserable city that had imprisoned her, hated the trappings of its hypocrisy and corruption. Hated the siren call of its familiarity.
But without the knowledge of every roof here and every secret, what remained? One day, the Suli girl who’d dreamt only of warm grass and a wire strung higher and higher had grown Ketterdam skin. Inej Ghafa had been reborn here: a spider, then the Wraith, and now an arrow with an aim.
Despite herself, she wanted to believe there was something good here: in this polluted, greedy town run by thieves and thugs; and in the pale, frightened boys who’d crawled from its gutters.
Kaz went about his business as usual, but there was a loaded tension as he climbed up the stairs of the Slat to clean up after a brief fistfight. There’d been a few guards in bright blue livery on patrol during the latest job, but he was satisfied to find that he hadn’t grown sloppier - the blood littered only his gloves, not his face.
His steps were heavy on the wooden incline. Every footfall, every click of his cane, was the tick of a clock in the time before his hands encircled the knob of his door. She’s here, she’s here, she’s here, a rhythm beat into his wrist, unbidden.
He allowed himself the briefest of pauses, breath fast after taking the climb just the slightest bit swifter than usual.
Just an exhale - then he was letting himself in smoothly, expression ironed out. He’d already dropped papers on his old desk before he allowed himself to look up and address the figure tucked on his window ledge where he’d known she’d be.
“Wraith,” he said, and then before he could stop himself: “What business?”
She tucked her feet out from under her and hopped off neatly. For a moment, he was squinting at her against the late afternoon sun, her features indistinguishable in the warm shadows. But he knew them by heart: the delicate arch of her brows, the smooth flat of her nose.
She looked at him for a second, expression unreadable. Then: “I raided three ships harboring slaves over the past two months flying Kerch flags. The crew said they were headed for a new brothel here - the Gazelle?”
Kaz nodded, slipping into a familiar rhythm. He didn’t ask what Inej had done with the slavers. “The Gazelle opened up just a few weeks after you set sail, to fill the vacuum left by the Sweet Shop and the Menagerie. The Arc’s Keep owns the place - ”
“The Arc’s coffers are empty,” Inej said, though she looked uncertain. It must be disconcerting to know the dirtiest secrets of a city like the back of your hand, and return to one washed anew.
“And they barely have enough manpower for a janitor,” he said, nodding. The furrow of her brows eased, just slightly. The Arc’s Keep was one of the smallest gangs that’d cropped up after Rollins fled town, and they couldn’t possibly have amassed that much influence in less than a year.
“So why the Gazelle?” she asked.
“Some of the funds for a recent shipment they brought in came from a firm held by Bram Janssen’s nephew,” he said, picking up one of the files he’d brought up and handing it to her. “I suspect the Arc’s Keep is just a way for him to clean his hands of a disreputable pleasure house.”
Inej’s lips twitched, scanning over the papers that detailed the transaction. “A respectable Ghezen-fearing merch, I’m sure.”
He knew she was remembering the time they’d crouched by the sill outside Janssen’s window, eavesdropping on a less than respectable business deal he’d had with Pekka Rollins. Her shoulder mere inches from his, their breaths mingling in the musty Ketterdam air.
Her fingers thumbed the pages carefully, dark eyes almost black against the light.
Unbidden, he thought of the slender length of them against his ribcage, the push and give of his inhales and exhales against her palm. The ache in his chest pounded.
Foolish thoughts. He cleared his throat. “They should all be there. It’d be easy to expose Janssen to the Council, ruin the Gazelle’s business forever without a steady inflow of kruge. I’ve just been waiting for - we just haven’t struck yet.”
She looked up at him. “Thank you,” she said quietly.
The room was silent once more, and Kaz found himself searching wildly for something to say; something to keep her here in this moment, with him. But before he could let loose a meaningless anecdote, she parted her lips and said, “Kaz.”
There was a pause. Slowly, like approaching a nervous animal, she seated herself on the corner of his desk, the toes of her slippers hanging in the air, bare inches away.
He hesitated, and realized he’d begun to shake.
Just the same frightened child who’d spat disease and decay from his dirt-worn lips. Who’d sworn revenge on Pekka Rollins for taking away his knight, his hero, his brother, the word clenched in his jaw for the past decade.
What did this bedroom look like to her? The same scared, angry boy, trembling at the mere suggestion of a touch; the same crows cawing and demanding to be fed.
It isn’t easy for me either.
His eyes roved over her new scars, the new twist of her braid, the smell of salt fresh on her skin. Inej had left and returned with a purpose, with even more courage; and he still reeked of fearful sweat, clinging to the remains of his defenses.
He thought of fingers fisted together tight under a soft sky eleven months ago, promises made and promises kept.
If Kaz were a better man, he’d let her go. There was nothing to be salvaged in the dregs of this harbor. But he’d always been selfish, and he wanted this chance, he wanted to try.
So he swallowed back better, selfless words, and walked to her, fingers trembling as he dropped his gloves and closed the distance between their skin, reaching for her feet.
“Inej,” he rasped, and he felt something shudder through her, her feet knocking against one another just slightly. His fingers brushed against the bone of her ankle.
An earthquake demanded attention within him, roiling with the repulsion of greenish skin, dead and bloated against his touch. The precise feeling of the epidermis as it swelled away from flesh, wrinkled from saltwater, like clammy plastic under his hands.
He swallowed down the ugly taste of food rising up his throat and closed his eyes, shaking, fingers determinedly circling her calf.
Kaz Brekker, demon of the Fifth Harbor, undone by the thought of a Suli girl’s bare feet.
He focused on the mundanity of the task, broke it down over and over again in his mind as he rolled down a ridged leather slipper, thin enough for climbing but hard enough to weather a slippery deck. One of the last gifts he’d given her, the day she’d left.
Left him behind, he’d thought. And yet, like nothing else in his life - returned to him, the awe of it expanding in the dark expanse of his ribs, lifting old sorrows from their old hiding places.
Both slippers were removed now, casually placed on his chair, and he leaned into the space between Inej’s legs, picking up a bare, freckled brown foot with shaking hands. He felt Inej’s own hand land hesitantly in his hair, the barest brush of her fingertips against his scalp. Something in his gut settled - amongst the roiling, he was unshakeably sure that he was rooted in the present, never further from the past.
A brief, shaky inhale - breathless against the unrelenting gravity, pushing him forward, forward. The exhaustion of the past few months of not seeing her, huddling him against her sternum; the soft texture of her clothes and her familiar scent settling around him as she tucked her chin against his head.
The two of them, eyes closed and breaths hesitant, huddled together like frightened schoolchildren in the settling dust of the attic. Standing, bracketed by her presence, Kaz felt something finally loosen within him.
He remembered Nina saying once, her head on Matthias’ chest, that soulmates were two halves of the same coin, destined to find each other in every life.
The gaping crescents of a full moon, arched towards each other. A perpetual search and release. A hello and a goodbye, tethered by fate. But Nina had always been a romantic.
Kaz held no stock in soulmates, or reincarnation, or second chances. He’d stolen this life - the only one he had - from the maws of death, and he didn’t intend to return it before he’d done its due.
Destiny could pick whoever they’d like for him, but he knew his choice, and he knew Inej’s. Fate led them away from each other by the hand - him to his dark dealings, her to her open seas - yet they were still lodestones, pointed at each other. He kept her berth clean enough to eat off, waiting, and she came back. She came back.
He thought of Inej’s laughter, the quirk of her lips when Jesper said something stupid or when Nina handed her a slice of chocolate. This is a choice, he thought, exhaling against the sturdy press of her chest.
His hands, free, wandered and found hers.
This is my choice.