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What if I fell to the floor?

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The stairs leading to Kaz’s rooms were hard on a good day. Stairs were murder on his bad leg, which was on the list of things which were not getting better as he aged. The very small part of him which was actually logical about his health was aware that at some point he was going to have to move into Per Haskell’s old rooms simply to give his leg a break, but the rest of him was far to proud and paranoid to do anything that might even hint at anything other than perfect strength. However, his leg was the least of his problems today, though the winter chill was making that even worse than usual. What was really causing him trouble was his chest.

He had to stop part way up the second flight of stairs to catch his breath. He gripped the railing with one hand and coughed roughly into his other fist. Every cough sent a sharp, stabbing pain through his chest that would probably have made a lesser person sob. He wasn’t sure why this was happening; he’d already been unlucky enough to come down with whatever flu had been going around the Barrel and he’d been getting better, why were things suddenly worse again? He needed to get better so he could deal with whatever crazy new danger the Barrel was bound to throw at him as soon as everyone got over their flus and was able to plot and scheme again.

He finished coughing and spat out a glob of phlegm. The mushy substance was a weird color which was probably bad. He made a face. He wasn’t necessarily opposed to the idea of bodily fluids on his gloves, what he was fundamentally opposed to the idea of his own bodily fluids on his gloves.

He straightened carefully up and took a shallow breath, trying not to set the coughing off again. After a moment he forced himself to climb the rest of the stairs. He was struggling for breath by the time he reached the top of the stairs, but he let himself into his room and sank down into his desk chair.

The chair behind his makeshift desk was unpadded wood and supremely uncomfortable. He should have stayed downstairs in the office which he still hadn’t managed to stop thinking of as Per Haskell’s. He had a nice padded leather chair down there and he wouldn’t have had to climb stairs. Still, he’d reached the level of feeling awful where all he wanted to do was hide so no one would see him weak.

He needed to get some work done. Between him and all his underlings getting the flu in the past few weeks they were massively behind. There were jobs to plan, figures to go over and people to push around, but he was so tired. Fatigue had settled deep inside him; his muscles and joints ached.

He was just finishing yet another round of coughing when someone gave the door a perfunctory knock and immediately let themself in. It was Anika. Kaz glared at her through watering eyes. “Hasn’t anyone ever told you that the point of knocking is so the other person can tell you whether or not you should come in?” he croaked.

“I can hear you coughing from my room downstairs,” she said. “I came up to make sure you weren’t dying.”

“I’m fine,” Kaz said. “I don’t need you checking on me.”

“You’ve taken a turn for the worst again,” Anika said. “You sound worse than Roeder did last week and I can tell just by looking at you that your temperature’s up. You should go to bed: get some sleep.”

“I have things to do,” Kaz said.

“Yes, and you’re burning up with a fever and hacking up a lung,” she said. “You should sleep.”

“I’m fine,” Kaz pulled a ledger towards himself despite the fact that reading his own close, scrawling handwriting would probably only make his headache worse.

“I’ll sic the Wraith on you when she gets back,” Anika said. “She won’t be happy when she figures out you’re not taking care of yourself again.”

“She doesn’t need to know,” Kaz said. “I’m going to be fine by the time she gets back.”

Anika raised her eyebrows. “Not if you don’t get some sleep, you won’t.”

“Get out, Anika,” Kaz said, when she didn’t move he went on, “That’s an order. I don’t need more insubordinate people in this gang. Espen is more than enough.”

“But, Boss-”

“Get out!”

She finally left. When the door closed behind her, Kaz settled back into his chair and tried not to cough now that he knew everyone who lived on the floor below could hear him. He needed to get things done. There had been enough dely.

~~~~

Unsurprisingly, Kaz was not feeling better the next morning. He’d eventually fallen into a fitful sleep at his desk interrupted by coughing fits. In the morning even he couldn’t pretend that something wasn’t wrong. He’d been sick before--it was impossible not to be in a place as close and generally unhygienic as the Barrel--but this was something different.

Still, that didn’t change the fact that he had a gang to run. He couldn’t afford to be sick, especially not so soon after the last time he’d been sick. He had an image to maintain.

So he hauled himself up and changed out of the sweat-soaked clothes he’d slept in and washed his hair and the worst of his body in the basin in his bedroom. Halfway through he started coughing and ended with him sitting on his floor shivering as the water cooled on his skin. It was very cold in his rooms and he knew that wasn’t just because of his fever, though that probably wasn’t helping. He was proud of the improvements he’d made to the Slat over the years, but nothing changed the fact that it was an old building with cruddy insulation.

When he finally managed to regain his breath, he dragged himself painfully back to his feet and dressed. He felt like knives were stabbing into his chest whenever he breathed. Another fit of coughing left him with tears in his eyes which he wiped away with annoyance before beginning the torturous trip downstairs.

When he finally managed to make it to his soft downstairs office chair, he gave himself a few minutes to cough and then a few more to rest with his head thrown back and his eyes closed. Once he could not in good conscience sit around anymore, he started in on his coffee. He was nearly finished with his second cup and feeling no perkier than he had pre-caffeine, when someone pounded on the office door.

“Enter,” he called and nearly descended into another coughing fit, which would have been unacceptable.

The door opened and Espen let himself him. He was exactly the last person Kaz wanted to see right now. Espen had been trouble at age eleven and he’d only gotten worse as he aged. Recently things had started to get even more worrying, though Kaz was having a hard time putting a finger on what exactly had changed. He’d made up his mind to keep as close an eye on Espen as possible.

“What do you want?” Kaz snapped.

“There’s reports of trouble on the border with the Razorgulls,” Espen said. “Apparently they’re trying to set up camp in a building a couple blocks on our side of the border.”

Kaz held back a sigh. There was only one thing to do in this situation. Okay, maybe that wasn’t strictly true, but there was only one thing that Kaz had the energy to think of right now. He was far too tired for this. “Have Anika round up a group,” Kaz said. “Bruisers, people who look impressive. We need to teach the Razorgulls a lesson.”

“I can gather a group,” Espen protested.

“And Anika is a lieutenant and you are not,” Kaz said. “Get moving.”

Espen’s face twisted with frustration but his left as ordered. Kaz managed to keep from coughing until the door closed behind him. Going anywhere--let alone to go whip the Razorgulls back into line--was going to be fun.

~~~~

Convincing Anika that he was well enough to come along was complicated, but not impossible because she did ultimately answer to him and there was only so far you could argue when the other person could just fire you when they got sick of listening to you. As a result, Kaz was with the group which headed out to teach the Razorgulls their place that night.

It was bitterly cold outside and wind whipped off the harbor, blowing into their faces as they struggled through the slush towards the meeting place. Kaz always hated it when the wind blew off the harbor, because it meant the whole city smelled like the harbor, which stirred up things he didn’t like to think about. It was even worse tonight because the wind stole what little breath he could manage and the cold made breathing even more difficult. By the time they reached the meeting place he was audibly struggling for breath and trying not to cough. Most of the Dregs they’d brought had the decency to pretend not to notice, though Anika looked like she was contemplating risking her job by saying something.

Kaz wasn’t sure which was worse. Espen who was getting ideas above his position, or Anika who was willing to risk her position for Kaz’s wellbeing. Years before, Anika had sworn that she’d never try to overthrow him and that he could always count on her to have his back. She had mentioned nothing about trying to police him. Kaz would have to have a discussion about this with her and define the boundaries of their relationship again. He only tolerated this kind of thing from Inej and even then only grudgingly.

He also needed to make sure Anika wasn’t getting ideas that her teenage crush on him might actually get somewhere since she knew Inej wasn’t likely to go back to being his spider. He wasn’t sure if that was something he needed to be thinking about or not. Kaz made his living off knowing people’s dirty secrets and that often included who they were attracted to. For whatever reason, this skill did not always extend to himself. Intellectually, he knew that there were probably a number of people in Ketterdam who were attracted to him. In practice, he often forgot about it unless the person in question was being really obvious, which often made things interesting.

No matter why Anika had gotten into her head that she could worry about his health he couldn’t actually deal with it until he could argue that his health was actually fine, which he knew it currently wasn’t even if he was going to act like it was. Plus it was always a bad idea to get into an argument when you couldn’t breathe and right now he couldn’t breathe.

Still he tried to pull himself together before he stepped out to talk to the Razorgulls. He needed to seem healthy or at least pissed off enough that no one would question it. When he felt like he had himself well enough in hand he lead the way into the meeting. The Razogulls were not happy to see them, but Kaz’s reputation preceded him just like it always did. Even with all the annoying stumbling blocks his body was trying to throw at him taken into consideration, it looked like the night was going to go fine. Kaz was allowing himself to think longingly of his warm office or--no matter how out of character--his bed, when a light flashed from the upper windows of a building alongside the square they were meeting in. Roeder. When no one immediately reacted, Roeder flashed the signal again. It was the prearranged signal for danger.

“What does that mean?” one of the Razorgulls asked.

Stadwatch ,” Kaz said. “Scatter.”

They ran. By the time Kaz and Anika cleared the square and were back into the comparative safety of the streets and alleys, the armed Dregs who had been waiting for something to go badly were already vanishing into the shadows of the Barrel. Kaz and Anika made to do the same thing. From the shouting from behind, it sounded like the Razorgulls had scattered directly into the waiting arms of the stadwatch . Tough luck for them.

For a moment, Kaz let himself hope the stadwatch would be too distracted by the Razorgulls to chase after them, but then he heard someone shout, “Look, that way!” and footsteps pounded after them.

They fled. Anika quickly began to outpace Kaz. She was always faster than him--Kaz’s leg was not particularly conducive to running, though he knew some tricks and things to say which tended to keep people from consciously noticing--but this was different. Knives stabbed into Kaz’s chest with every breath he took, and he felt dizzy and unsteady on his feet. He wanted to sink down into a heap on the ground and sleep. He tried to put on more speed but he kept falling further and further behind Anika and the footsteps behind him got louder and louder.

A coughing fit gripped him. He tried to push through it and keep running, but he couldn’t. Someone grabbed the back of his coat and he lashed out with his cane. His eyes were squeezed tight shut with the force of his coughing, but he felt the cane hit something. The hand loosened, but then another grabbed him and someone wrestled him to the ground. He fought as best as he could while his lungs were still trying to escape his body, but his cane was twisted from his grasp. Cold metal cuffs were closed around his wrists, locking his hands behind his back. It was over.

For the first time since he was fourteen, Kaz Brekker had been arrested.

~~~~

Thankfully the stadwatch threw him into a different cart than they did for their Razorgull prisoners. Kaz wasn’t sure if that was because they’d recognized that he was from a different gang and didn’t want to cause any problems during transport or if the other cart was just full, but he was thankful. There wasn’t a prison in Ketterdam that could hold him, but the fewer people who knew he’d gotten picked up by the stadwatch tonight, the better it would be.

Kaz’s lungs had stopped spasming by the time the stadwatch slammed the door of the cart, leaving him in darkness. He lay on the wet, slimy wooden floor and tried to catch his breath. His head was pounding and his chest had outstripped his leg in sheer volume of pain. As much as he hated to admit it, Anika may have had a point about him not going out tonight.

But none of that mattered now. He needed to escape. The stadwatch had patted him down for weapons--of which he had none save his cane as was the custom for the kind of meeting he had just been at--but they’d only found two of the three sets of lockpicks he carried at all times. Now that his lungs had decided that they were going to do their job again--however painfully and reluctantly--he needed to get on to the business of escaping. This was partially to avoid the embarrassment of this particular entanglement going on his record and partially because they’d taken his coat, mittens and scarf while patting him down. His gloves were meant to avoid skin-on-skin contact not to keep his hands warm; if he didn’t act soon his fingers would go numb and that was not conducive to lockpicking.

He started to shift himself into a position which would allow him to reach the hidden lockpicks, but then the cart was opened again and a member of the stadwatch clambered inside, holding a white handkerchief in one hand. He grinned. “How does it feel to finally be going to face justice, Brekker?” he asked.

Great, Kaz had been under the impression that they hadn’t recognized him. Maybe they hadn’t until they’d shoved him into the cart and taken a closer look at his cane. “Justice?” he asked, his voice even more raspy than usual. He hurt. He wanted to get this over with so he could go back to the Slat and sleep. “I’m not sure anyone in Ketterdam has ever heard that word before.”

“I’m sure,” the stadwatch said, then he pressed the handkerchief to Kaz’s mouth and nose. Kaz smelled chloroform and tried to hold his breath but he didn’t have the lung capacity for that right now. He had to breathe and darkness rose up and carried him under.

~~~~

Kaz came to handcuffed to a chair in a painfully bright room. He squinted against the light and tried to get his eyes to adjust. It did not work so well. A coughing fit took him before he could actually see and left him hanging forward wishing he could just stop breathing.

“Kaz Brekker,” a voice said. “Imagine my surprise. It’s a pleasure.”

Kaz forced his eyes open and squinted up at the mustached stadwatch officer standing over him. He was sure he knew this man’s name and a litany of dirty things which could be used to secure his release, but he couldn’t think of them right now. His head hurt even more than it had before and his brain felt like it had been sent through one of the big harvesting machines he remembered from his farm boy childhood. He was both too warm and too cold at the same time. That was definitely a bad sign.

“I can’t say the same,” he told the officer.

The officer laughed. “I can’t imagine you can,” he chortled. “Imagine my surprise when I heard the report. No one’s picked you up in years.”

“Nine years,” Kaz said. It was only almost six if you counted how he’d been captured by Jan Van Eck as being picked up. Though did it really matter when he was sitting cuffed to a chair?

The officer went on like he hadn’t heard him. “I can already hear what it will be like when everyone learns that I’m the one who captured Kaz Brekker,” he gloated. “I’ll be promoted for sure. I might even end up running this organization.” He was swinging something in his hands. It took Kaz an embarrassingly long time to recognize his cane.

“You didn’t capture me, though,” Kaz said, mostly because that was the only nerve he was currently aware of and he needed to poke at something. “Your lackeys did that.”

The officer’s face turned purple. If that was how he reacted to such a weak and obvious prod, Kaz could only imagine what would happen if he could actually remember something specific and personal. He racked his brain, but couldn’t come up with anything but a vague feeling that his surname started with the letter P.

The officer went off on a torrent of ranting that Kaz probably would have tuned out even if he had been feeling better. You were in his line of work for long enough, and you got really sick of listening to people with inflated senses of importance whine about how important they were. Kaz breathed in for a theatrical sigh which would make the officer even more angry, but his lungs protested and the next thing he knew he was doubled over coughing again.

When it finally finished, the officer was cackling like someone had just given him a birthday gift. “Oh, what’s this?” he said, leaning in so close Kaz could feel his hot, sour breath against his cheek. His skin crawled. “If the infamous Bastard of the Barrel feeling under the weather? Could this mean that you’re actually nothing more than a human? Could this be foreshadowing that you’re going to fall and die like a human at my hands?”

All the frustration Kaz felt at himself for his fragile state and all his paranoia about the dire consequences this illness might have if people realized he was weak coalesced into rage at this man. He looked the officer straight in the face and spat all the phlegm he’d just coughed up into his captor’s face.

The officer pulled back, his face twisted in disgust and wiped the mucus off his face. Kaz grinned, knife-like and unapologetic. He hoped this man caught whatever demon plague this was and died slowly and painfully.

The look on the officer’s face was almost worth the backhanded slap he gave Kaz the next moment. Kaz’s head spun, but he tried to keep it together. He needed to escape and keep his reputation intact. He did not have time for any of this.

“Throw him in a cell,” the officer told one of the junior stadwatch , turning away. “Maybe that fever will burn the attitude out of him by morning.”

Kaz let the junior stadwatch drag him into a cell, because he wasn’t sure he was going to make it on his own. It was humiliating, but he wasn’t really in the position to do anything else, especially if he wanted to be able to work up the energy to escape tonight. He let his body go limp and tried to make moving and chaining him as difficult as possible without actively struggling. By the time he was securely chained in a dank, smelly cell the stadwatch was swearing openly. Kaz found it in himself to smile just a little.

Then he was alone save for the guard at the end of the hall and it was time to escape. They still hadn’t found his last set of lockpicks. All he had to do was free himself of the chains and cell, do something with the guard and slip out. It would be easy. He’d managed escapes much more complicated than this hundreds of times.

Unfortunately, his pathetic run-in with the officer had sapped all his remaining strength. He tried to sit up, but he was too dizzy and just ended up back on the floor. He was panting despite the pain in his chest but he still couldn’t catch his breath. He wondered if he was going to suffocate on the gunk in his chest, then rebuked himself for thinking such nonsense. That did not stop him from falling into another coughing fit, however. He tried to stifle it and to prepare to escape, but it went on and on until everything faded into blackness.

~~~~

Kaz was not sure if he’d been unconscious, asleep or simply too out of touch with the world to register the passing of time, but he came back to himself to the sound of the officer, the guard and a third person arguing.

“I don’t understand what gives you the idea that you can walk in here and take the most valuable prisoner we’ve ever had out of here!” the officer snapped.

“I’m not going to take the most valuable prisoner you’ve had out,” a very familiar voice said. “I’m going to take my servant and double agent out.”

“Somehow, I don’t think we’re talking about the same prisoner,” the officer said loftily.

“I agree,” the familiar voice said. “You keep insisting that you’ve managed to arrest Kaz Brekker, even though I’ve told you that you’ve actually arrest a servant of mine who’s been impersonating Kaz Brekker in an attempt at drawing the real Kaz Brekker out.”

“That’s a very complicated plot,” the officer said. “I find it hard to believe.”

“Harder to believe than that you managed to pick up Kaz Brekker during a routine patrol when no one has managed to arrest him in a decade?”

There was a long pause while the officer thought. Kaz was blurrily aware that the man’s desire for fame was warring with the knowledge of what would happen if he really did have the wrong person.

“Can you imagine what would happen if you tell the Merchant Council tomorrow that you’ve managed to arrest Kaz Brekker and then turn out to be wrong?” the other person pushed. “Do you really want to risk that?”

The officer huffed out the sort of curse that meant you had someone. “Fine, get him out of here before I come up with something to fine you for.”

“Thank you,” the man said. “And make sure you get his things for me too. Those were expensive to fake, especially that cane.”

Kaz listened as footsteps sounded on the slimy stone floors. The door to his cell swung open with a creak. He peeled his eyes open and squinted at the curly red-haired man before him.

“Hello,” said Wylan Van Eck. “Care to explain what’s going on here?”

~~~~

Wylan basically had to carry him out to the carriage he’d ridden from the Van Eck mansion. It was humiliating, but he was also painfully aware that he wouldn’t have made it alone. He was coughing violently by the time Wylan got him settled into the carriage with a lap rug over his legs.

Wylan looked at him with open worry. “How long have you had that cough?”

Kaz didn’t have the breath to respond so he just shrugged.

Wylan pursed his lips, then peeled off one of the fur-lined gloves he was wearing--how very mercher of him--and pressed the back of his hand to Kaz’s forehead. The touch was sickening. Kaz could normally handle contact through clothes these days, but skin-on-skin was still beyond him most of the time. He jerked away after just a second, but apparently not fast enough because Wylan was looking more concerned than he had before. He turned and leaned out the carriage window. “Coen, can you run to Doctor Smit’s and tell him he’s needed at the mansion for an urgent patient. Tell him we’ll pay him double to drop everything and not tell anyone where he’s going.”

“Yes, sir,” a child’s voice chirped. Kaz looked out the window in time to see a boy of about ten jump off the front of the carriage and run off into the better lit streets which lay in the direction Kaz knew Jesper and Wylan’s medik lived.

“You don’t need to do that,” he said, the words sounding like a croak. “I’m fine.”

“I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that,” Wylan said and turned back to the carriage window. “We’re ready to head back whenever you are, Arnoud.” The carriage driver said something Kaz couldn’t hear, then Wylan ducked back inside the carriage and it began to move.

Wylan settled down on the other seat and watched Kaz with the sort of tense, worried look that suggested he was contemplating how likely Kaz was to die before they got to the mansion.

“How did you know where I was?” Kaz asked, because that was the best thing he could think of as a distraction right now.

“Anika,” Wylan said after a moment. “Once she realized what had happened to you she came right to the house and told Jesper and I everything. You’re lucky Pals was on duty tonight. The other officers would never have fallen for that ‘that’s not really Kaz Brekker’ routine.”

“It was a passable scam,” Kaz admitted. “Obviously I’ve managed to teach you something.”

He’d hoped the compliment might prove distracting, but Wylan wasn’t stupid and Kaz was far off his game tonight. Wylan raised his eyebrows until they almost reached his hairline. “Care to explain what you were even doing out tonight when you’re obviously so sick?” he asked.

“You’re overreacting,” Kaz said.

“We both know that’s not true,” Wylan said. “It’s almost four bells in the morning. You were picked up at ten thirty. If you really were fine, why hadn’t you already broken yourself out?”

Kaz didn’t have a good answer for that.

“That’s what I thought,” Wylan leaned back in his seat and sighed. “We’ve been over this, Kaz. Multiple times. I hate to say this, but: you’re not getting any younger.”

“I’m twenty-three,” Kaz pointed out.

“That’s my point!” Wylan said. He heaved another sigh. “I’m worried about you, Kaz.”

~~~~

Kaz had fallen into something adjacent to sleep by the time the carriage pulled up before the Van Eck manor. Footsteps pounded on the sidewalk and Jesper yanked the carriage door open. “Did you find him?” he asked. Kaz shifted just a little and managed to open his eyes enough to glare. “Oh, thank Ghezen,” Jesper saw Kaz and then went on, attention focused on Wylan, “Inej showed up right after you left. She’d gone to the Slat, but Kaz wasn’t there. She almost lost it when she figured out what happened, I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to stop her from going over there knives flashing.”

Inej was not supposed to be back yet. She was not supposed to know about this. Kaz swore.

Jesper looked back at him and did a double take. “Is he alright?” he asked Wylan.

“No, he’s really not,” Wylan said. “He’s really sick. I send Coen for a medik, and you’re probably going to have to help me carry him up to his room.”

“I can walk,” Kaz protested. Inej couldn’t see him letting someone carry him.

“You know, I’d love to give you the benefit of the doubt,” Wylan said, “but, really, I’m absolutely convinced you can’t.”

~~~~

Annoyingly, Wylan was right. Kaz managed a couple steps, but then started coughing and Jesper and Wylan ended up carrying him into the house and up the stairs to the room they kept insisting was his even though he’d never actually used it. The only plus to the whole endeavour was that he didn’t actually remember Inej’s reaction to seeing him in this state.

He floated back to himself in bed, propped up against a pile of pillows. He vaguely remembered someone pulling off his boots and stripping him down to his pants, shirt and gloves. Thankfully no one had decided to try to change him into pajamas.

Inej as sitting on the end of the bed, turning an unsheathed knife over and over in her hands in a way that was more worried than threatening. Vaguely he was aware of Jesper pacing the room and Wylan talking quietly to a servant in the doorway, but his attention was only on her. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. She jumped, obviously having thought he was unconscious. “You weren’t supposed to know about this.”

She looked over and a sad smile crossed her face. “You’re the most reckless person I know, Kaz.”

He wanted to protest, to ask if she’d met Jesper, but everything faded away again.

~~~~

When he next woke up, something cold and hard was being pressed against his bare chest. He flinched and batted at it with an uncoordinated hand. “Get off-”

Someone gently took his wrist, careful not to touch his bare skin. “He needs to listen to your lungs,” Inej said pulling his hand away and laying it back down on the bed. She gave his arm a comforting little squeeze, then let go.

Kaz forced his eyes open and found himself looking up at Inej and Fabian Smit, Jesper and Wylan’s medik. Kaz and Smit had had a number of encounters over the years, the most notable being the time Kaz had gotten a gash in his leg during a knife fight, stitched it up himself and then gone on with his life until it became infected. Kaz was pretty sure Smit wasn’t any happier to see Kaz than Kaz was to see Smit.

“Mr. Brekker,” Smit said, ever the staunch professional, “How are you feeling?”

Kaz glared at him.

Smit sighed and turned his eyes to the ceiling. At least he pulled the cold metal end of the stethoscope away, though. “You know, this would be much easier if you would just answer my questions. How long have you had this cough?”

Kaz wasn’t going to respond, but Inej gave him a look. “A couple weeks,” he relented. “It was getting better, but then got worse again.”

“So you were previously sick?” Smit prodded.

“Everyone in the Barrel’s been sick,” Kaz snapped. “That hardly means anything.” He burst into a coughing fit that left him doubled over and spitting phlegm into a handkerchief Inej pressed into his hand. When he was finished, Smit snatched the handkerchief away and studied it, nodding as if that answered everything.

“Well?” Jesper urged. Kaz hadn’t even realized he and Wylan were still in the room. “What’s wrong with him?”

“He has pneumonia,” Smit said, stepping away to the side table which his medical bag was sitting on. “I’ll give you some tonics and medicines for him. It’s a good thing you called me when you did. Untreated he could die.”

Jesper and Wylan groaned. “Really, Kaz?” Jesper asked. “Your stupid lack of self-care extends to things that can actually kill you?”

Kaz simply turned his head away and closed his eyes. His head ached and he still couldn’t catch his breath. He wished they’d all go away and let him rest.

He dozed, vaguely aware of Smit talking about the things he was going to have delivered. Normally, Kaz would never let anyone talk about him without listening, but he trusted Inej, Jesper and Wylan and while he knew Smit didn’t like him, he also knew the man was smart enough to know he’d get blamed for anything happened to Kaz as a result of any medication he prescribed. He was as safe as one could get in his position.

He knew that Smit had gone when he floated back to wakefulness to the others hovering around his bed looking like they weren’t sure what to do now. “Pneumonia,” Jesper said when Kaz opened his eyes. “Saints, Kaz.”

Kaz thought about it for a moment, then snorted. He tried not to laugh, but he couldn’t help it. Too soon he was coughing and when he finally managed to stop the others were looking at him like they were afraid he’d lost his mind. “What’s so funny?” Jesper asked.

“I have pneumonia,” Kaz choked, trying to contain the hysteria. This wasn’t that funny. He knew that, but he couldn’t stop laughing, even though it made his chest hurt even worse.

“Yes,” Jesper said. “And? You’re going to have to explain a bit; I’m failing to see the joke.”

“I have pneumonia,” Kaz repeated, trying to figure out how to put what was so funny into words. “I have pneumonia and I spat in Officer Pals’s face.”

From the looks the others gave him, none of them saw the humor. “Okay, Kaz,” Inej said, patting his arm. “We get it.”

~~~~

Soon afterwards, the medicine arrived and Kaz was forced to drink all manner of nasty liquids. It turned out one of them was some kind of sedative, because he was quickly asleep and didn’t wake up until the sun was beginning to set. Only Inej was in the room now. She was perched on the end of the bed, intently polishing her knives. The ones she’d already finished were set carefully on the bed to dry. Kaz picked one up and turned it over and over, cursing his unsteady hands. “This one’s new.”

Inej looked up. She didn’t seem surprised that he was awake. “That’s a replacement. Sankta Marya broke in a fight a few months ago,” she gave him a little grin. “Don’t worry, the person I was fighting got off worse than the blade.”

“I’d expect nothing less,” Kaz said. He tried not to think about how uncomfortable the idea of one of her knives breaking made him. He’d never admit to worrying about her while she was away, but he did, almost constantly.

Inej set the knife she was working on aside--Sankt Petyr, the knife he had given her, he was pleased to see that it was still intact--and got up. She crossed to the side table where Smit had set his bag the night before and came back carrying four or five little glass vials. “You woke up just in time. It’s about time for you to take another dose of medicine.”

“Which one’s the sedative?” he asked.

“There isn’t-” she began to protest.

“Don’t treat me like an idiot,” Kaz said. “Which one is it?”

“This one,” she admitted holding one up.

“I’m not taking that one,” Kaz said.

“You need to rest,” Inej protested. “Not resting is probably how you get into this situation to begin with.”

“I am capable of staying put on my own,” Kaz replied. “I’m either not taking the sedative or I’m not taking any of it at all.”

Inej heaved a sigh. “Fine,” she said and held the other vials out to him. Normally, she would never have given in that easily. She either hadn’t slept and was too exhausted for a fight or she cared too much about him taking the actual medicine to fight.

Inej settled back down onto the bed while he drank the little vials in quick succession, wincing after each one. “So,” he asked when he was finished. “Is this the part where you ask me why I didn’t rest?”

“No,” Inej said. “I know you. I understand why you didn’t stop and rest. I’m just trying to figure out what I could possibly say to convince you not to do it again.”

“Nothing most likely,” Kaz tried to joke. “I am not known for my ability to take direction.”

“I’m serious!” she snapped. Her voice was sharp enough that anyone else might have jumped, but Kaz had long since trained such reactions out of himself. “Stuff like this just keeps happening. At this rate you’re not going to meet your end at the hands of another gang, or the merchers or the stadwatch; you’re going to meet your end at the hands of your own negligence.”

“That’s an exaggeration.”

“This is not an exaggeration!” Inej waved her hand at his bedridden form. “You have pneumonia! You could have died! You still could die! You need to take this seriously and make some kind of change so this doesn’t happen again.”

Deep down inside, Kaz knew she was right. She normally was, after all, but that didn’t mean that he would necessarily admit that. The simple fact was that no matter how right she was, he had a gang to run and people to keep on their toes. He could not change his lifestyle no matter how much of a good idea that probably would be.

“Inej,” he began, trying to find the words to explain. The more time passed the more obvious it became that Inej, Jesper and Wylan--he couldn’t speak for Nina since he hadn’t seen her in almost six years--did not actually understand what he’d gotten himself into when he’d overthrown Per Haskell and made himself the boss of the Dregs. They did not understand the commitment he’d made and the end he had resigned himself to. He couldn’t really blame them for that. After all, none of them were Barrel rats. They’d all found their way to the Barrel, but they were all from other places, places where people got old or realized their paths were unhealthy and choose new ones. Places where people lived to retire.

In theory, Kaz was from one of those places too, but the naive farm boy Kaz Rietveld was still as dead as he had ever been. Kaz Brekker was a Barrel rat to his core and he knew what happened when Barrel rats got old or slow or sick. He spent half his life fending off usurpers who wanted what he had, but he was painfully aware that someday someone would come who he couldn’t fight off. He also knew that the someone capable of overthrowing him would not be stupid enough to leave him alive to plot revenge.

The only way Kaz was getting out of the position he currently held was in a body bag, and if he wanted to live to see thirty he needed to do everything in his power to forestall that inevitably for as long as possible.

“Kaz?” Inej asked, concerned. “What’s wrong? What are you thinking about?”

“Nothing much,” Kaz lied. There was no point burdening her. “Just contemplating how long it will take for Officer Pals to become hideously ill. If I’m feeling better by then, perhaps I’ll rob him just to add insult to injury.”