The safehouse wasn’t what she’d expected. An old industrial building, though, if Inej were honest, it made sense – where else could house the six of them, quietly and comfortably? Where else would have enough room that Kaz’s crows wouldn’t peck each other to death in a call for space? Their personalities didn’t always mesh, no matter how often Inej urged Kaz to soften up.
But Inej’s exhaustion hardly allowed her to register that it was a warehouse at all, focusing her limited energy on Matthias – Matthias, who was still paler than he should be, still woozy from the drugs. He was having a hard time with the metal grate landing they were standing on, his knees too wobbly to adjust. Jesper and Nina had an arm slung over their shoulders, but they were struggling under his weight.
“I’ve never,” Jesper whined, breathing hard, “Appreciated how mountainous you are, my friend.”
“I certainly have,” Nina groaned from under his other arm, but her flirty tone was lost in her panting. They’d had to carry him out of the taxi, his feet sliding unsurely on the ground. Matthias’ eyes were glassy and unfocused – too many pills and too much pain and too little sleep. Guilt stabbed Inej at the thought and she jumped ahead to get the next door.
“Can’t help it,” Matthias muttered, and if he was trying for a joke, even that weak of one, he must’ve been feeling poorly. He patted Nina’s hair to acknowledge her, but he didn’t seem to have the energy to flirt back.
Of course he didn’t. He’d been shot less than twenty-four hours ago and had seen no medical care beyond Nina’s incomplete degree in nursing. He’d just toughed it out on a twelve-hour flight, keeping his mouth shut through the pain while the rest of them smuggled him painkillers stronger than the government would approve of. They’d had to use a wheelchair to get him off the flight, spin some story about the sleeping pills being stronger than expected.
The point was that Matthias was the one who had been through hell in the last twenty-four hours, but Kaz was looking at Inej like she was the one who’d crawled back to the surface.
“Inej. You should sleep,” he said, gentler than he usually was with others around. The bags under her eyes were so dark it looked like he’d been punched which – saints, he had. His nose could be broken and he hadn’t said a word. “We’ll watch over Matthias.”
Inej wanted to ask who would watch over Matthias – she was certain none of them had slept on the flight. Nina and Wylan had spent time at the other safehouse sewing Matthias up and lulling him to sleep. Inej had sat at the kitchen table, jumping at every noise, hands gripped firmly around her knives.
That had to be… twenty hours ago? They’d stayed at the Canadian safehouse through the night, caught the first flight to Europe the next morning. It was night, here. So that was… twenty-four? No, that was too few. Thirty-six? Hours since she’d slept.
Inej snapped back to attention when Matthias groaned and Nina began swearing and apologizing, slipping into another language. Matthias responded in kind, the pain wobbling his accent.
This – this race between safehouses and Matthias’ leg and the raw panic on Nina’s face – it was Inej’s fault. All of it. They all knew it, so Inej should be the one to stay up to –
Jesper and Nina negotiated Matthias through the narrow doorway onto the grated platform. Inej tore her eyes from them and looked out into the warehouse. They were standing above a wide-open space that must’ve been a factory floor. Standing on a long overhang that caught Matthias’ boots and jerked his leg because he wasn’t conscious enough to lift them. He groaned again and Nina pressed her forehead into his neck, muttering.
Somehow, Inej registered Kaz’s voice, but it was through water. He was striding forward, pointing at a door that Jesper and Nina followed him to. Kaz opened the door and Jesper and Nina negotiated Matthias’ bulk through the door, lowered him as gently as they could on the cot inside. Matthias groaned again but it was quieter this time, an audible sigh.
Inej watched through the doorway but looked away as Nina started to untie the knot on his sweatpants, as Jesper started to slip off his shoes. Inej wasn’t normally squeamish, but something about this wound made her stomach turn.
There were several more doorways on the landing, and a long staircase onto the factory floor. There were even more doorways off that floor, some just arched black holes. The sight of them made Inej’s skin crawl as she thought about another long corridor with no windows, though that one had been lit by blinding fluorescents –
“Inej,” Kaz was back. The way he’d stepped into her line of sight made Inej think he’d said it more than once. “I’m going to bring you to a room to sleep.” Wylan stood at his elbow, holding half a dozen bags – they’d bought them at the airport in an effort to blend in. They were filled with airport trinkets and junky tourist t shirt, anything they could find in the airport shops before security. The only thing more suspicious than travelling without luggage was travelling with completely empty luggage. Wylan was bringing it all in on his own, and that wasn’t fair. This was Inej’s mess.
Something bumped against her shin. Kaz’s cane, stopping her as she moved to the door, as if to retrieve more bags from the taxi.
“That’s all there is,” he said. He looked to Wylan, “Could you see if Jesper and Nina need help?”
Inej wanted to argue – to tell him she didn’t need to be coddled. But when she went to cross her arms, she forgot about her shoulder. It protested by way of a painful shoot of pinpricks that made her gasp. It hadn’t hurt this much when she’d first had it wrenched; she thought maybe the muscle was pulled, the pain only catching up to her now. Still, she didn’t dare say anything. She didn’t need anyone fussing over her, not when Matthias was still in that much pain.
But Kaz caught her gasp. His blackened eyes narrowed and she knew what he was going to say before he even spoke.
“I’m fine,” she said.
“Then lift your arm up,” Kaz challenged. Inej just glared at him, looking back in the doorway where Matthias was still visible. She looked just in time to see Nina peel back the bandage.
When Inej next blinked, she saw the bullet rip through his leg again, remembered the feel of the warm spurt of blood on her bare feet. The walls, painted in a sickly yellow, had been splattered, with an Inej-shaped shadow in them.
Inej turned, suddenly afraid she’d be sick.
“Inej,” Kaz said and though his voice was softer now, it still made her jump, hand shooting to her waist. But her knives weren’t there. Abandoned so they could get through airport security. The thought made her nearly sick, knees weakening.
“You need rest,” Kaz said, softer still. “Inej.”
She thought of being up on the tightrope and losing her balance, the swoop in her stomach right before she righted herself. Inej drew her gravity back. When she looked to Kaz, her hands were steady.
“Your room is down there,” Kaz continued. His voice was kind but firm. No longer gentle advice; he was giving an order. “You need to rest.”
Something mechanical was triggered in her. With the same instinct that made her reach for a bandage when bleeding, Inej followed him along the landing. Kaz didn’t say anything as they walked, or as he pushed open the door to the narrow room.
Inej walked inside, examining it. There was a window, wide and looking out into the night. The sight of the starry sky allowed her a breath. But then she saw the bed and fear came roaring back, making her stop in place.
Kaz said her name again. She turned to him and took the door in hand. Kaz paused. He looked like he was considering arguing something, was going to make some point he knew she wouldn’t like. But he just stepped back.
“Get some sleep,” he said. Inej shut the door.
Inej went to the window, carefully edging around the bed, and wrenched it open, gulping in the cold, fresh air. It cleared her head a little. Kaz’s voice came to her again. He was right, she finally admitted to herself. She needed sleep.
But one look at the bed had her trembling all over again, stumbling back into the wall. Her shoulder ached.
Her hands went to her hips again but only found air. Their absence was a physical presence, a painful phantom limb. Inej sunk slowly to sit in the corner, good shoulder pressed against the wall, drawing her knees up in front of her. Her knives were gone, but her saints were not. She could pray. Pray, and then sleep. But she fell asleep before she could utter the first word.
Inej woke with a crick in her neck and the sun in her eyes. Her knees cracked when she stretched her legs out, having been tucked up tightly against her all night, and she paused before she tried to stand. Let the blood flow catch up, her back stretch a little. Her shoulder was full of pinpricks she had to grit her teeth against.
Jesper had gone into a casino three months ago. He’d only placed one bet, but one was enough.
He’d come back to their then-hideout, bug-eyed, hands fiddling with anything they could reach. He told Inej that he’d had a relapse. She remembered how his mouth had looked as it formed the word, how painful it seemed to be to admit it. His hands wouldn’t stop shaking.
In the last two years, Inej had learned to run on rooftops like they were high wires. She’d learned to slide her knives in the soft tenderness under ribs, to wear black so she could move in and out of buildings unnoticed. She’d learned how to plant her knee into a groin and how to bite back. And now her hands were shaking and her neck was stiff from sleeping in a corner after being too afraid of a bed.
Relapse. The word was coppery in her mouth.
Inej clenched her hand into a fist and stood slowly, pressing up against the wall to help her to her feet. She felt grimy, covered in layers of fearful sweat and airport gunk and whatever was on the floor in here. She’d last changed… it was hard to guess. Before the motel, she thought. Before Matthias had been shot.
No, she corrected herself, remembering. The safehouse. She’d had to change there because Matthias’ blood was on her pants. It explained the ill-fitting jeans, the way they cut hard into her stomach. They weren’t hers and she rarely wore jeans.
The sun was spilling in her window, but not very brightly. Was it early? Or late? Inej wasn’t even sure what time they’d arrived in Croatia. Her body’s clock was as foggy as the rest of her and there wasn’t anything in the room aside from the bed. Not even a blanket on it.
Jet lag, piled on all that stress. She yanked her hair tie out, giving herself something else to focus on. She rebraided her hair very carefully. Then she walked to the door, stepping into the warehouse. She made sure her back was straight.
The first thing that struck her was the light – creeping up, still orange, but filling the warehouse floor through huge, glass ceilings. She paused for a moment, looking up at the sky. Just the sight of it loosened the knot in her gut, made her breathe a little easier.
Inej pulled her door shut behind her, only then noticing a note. On a torn sheet of paper, Inej recognized Jesper’s wild handwriting.
I’m down the stairs through the biggest arch. Kaz and Wy went for supplies. Matthias and Nina are resting.
She was standing on the grate overhang. When she walked to the stairs, she passed five doors, with nameplates that had been emptied years ago. Vaguely, Inej wondered what they used to be. Offices? They seemed small for that, but Inej couldn’t think of anything else they could’ve been used for.
All the other doors were closed. Inej hovered at the one they’d placed Matthias in the night before, but she couldn’t hear anything beyond deep breathing. They really were sleeping – that was good.
She took the stairs down. On the factory floor, she heard it. Whistling, a horrible rendition of a pop song. Jesper.
The sound was coming from the widest exits off the floor, an arched entrance that led to a long hallway. The hall was narrow and disappeared into darkness at the end – no windows there. The thought made her itch, but she went into it anyways, following the echoing sound of Jesper’s cheery whistle.
There was a dim, exposed bulb lighting the way, the wires pinned to the ceiling in regular increments. Something was painted on the wall in Croatian, along with a long arrow pointing forward. She didn’t think she was imagining the gradual descent, either, the feeling she was going deeper and deeper underground with each step. Inej followed the whistling.
She finally emerged into a kitchen, one with a huge industrial fridge and long counters and Jesper, poking around in the drawers. He turned around and grinned at her.
“Morning, love,” Jesper said, gesturing for Inej to take a seat at the wide wooden table. He didn’t step forward to give her his customary kiss on her hair; she found herself strangely grateful and just as guilty. “Tea? Anything for breakfast?”
Inej took a seat, “Tea, please.” She remembered Kaz, you need sleep. Like putting a bandage on a bleeding wound – she should eat something. “What’s there to eat?”
“Some very sad little ration packs,” Jesper said, “But Kaz and Wylan went to get some supplies, so don’t feel like you have to choke them back. Wylan promised McDonald’s, or whatever the Croatian equivalent is.”
Inej nodded, watching as he went to a drawer full of mismatched mugs. He dug around a bit until he found one with cheerful sunflowers, filling it with hot water and dropping in her tea bag. He set it in front of her with a smile but still didn’t touch her. Gratitude and guilt tangled up in her stomach again.
“Thank you,” Inej said, meaning the space and the tea. Jesper smiled wider, like he understood. He sat down at the table too while Inej examined the sunflowers, tracing the largest. Hand-painted, she thought.
“What is this place?” She asked.
Jesper looked up at the dreary cement walls, “Kaz says it was a war-era bunker. Not sure what war, though. He said the factory was a front, to hide the entrance. Don’t worry about getting lost – all halls lead to the main hall.”
Inej nodded, taking a tentative sip of her tea. “I’m glad we don’t have to sleep down here.”
“You and me both, love,” Jesper said, drinking his own tea.
He very kindly hadn’t mentioned how she looked, which Inej knew was ghastly. Kaz and Wylan out, Nina and Matthias asleep… she wondered if it was planned, to have Jesper’s good humor be the one to meet her in the morning. She didn’t care. Inej was glad Jesper was the one with her.
“What are they getting?” She asked, knowing Jesper would prefer to keep a steady stream of conversation up.
“Clothes, food, weapons,” Jesper smirked, “Not necessarily in that order.”
Inej hummed, holding her tea close. “Not a very well stocked safehouse, then.”
“Reminds me,” Jesper said, digging around in his pockets. He withdrew a pocketknife. Inej sat up straighter. “Found this in one of the drawers. Thought you might like it.” He offered it to her handle-first. The second her fingers found the hilt, Inej felt relief wash over her. She flipped out the little knife, examining its blade. A little rough, but not bad. She tested it out in her grip – it wouldn’t throw well, and the blade was dull, but that could be fixed easily enough. She looked up at Jesper, smiling.
“Thank you,” she said, with feeling. Jesper’s smirk was more a smile.
“Course.” He chucked her under the chin lightly. “You doing okay, Ghafa?”
Inej looked up from the knife. “Better now. Fahey.”
It didn’t take long for Inej to think of it: where did they go wrong?
Once the question entered her mind it wouldn’t leave, previously held back by exhaustion and panic and devoted, terrified focus on getting to the next safehouse. The ill-fated job had been in Canada, of all places, not exactly somewhere known for classical art collections. But there was a Pollock in Ontario their client wanted, tucked away in a private residence. Now Inej wondered if there had been a painting at all, or if it’d been a ruse to smoke them out.
She dismissed the thought. Kaz would never take them on a heist that he didn’t look into, that he didn’t confirm the legitimacy of. Someone must’ve sold them out on the way. The client, probably, looking for a payoff. The other Crows would never – so it was the client, or maybe the owner of that skeezy motel they’d been staying in. But how would they know to go to Heleen?
Inej considered it all sitting at the kitchen table while Jesper rooted through the drawers, occasionally exclaiming and holding up some interesting piece of kitchenware or an ancient food ration. Jesper struck her as antsy. She didn’t blame him. She was feeling restless herself, but between her lingering exhaustion and the enduring soreness in her shoulder, Inej couldn’t find it in herself to move.
She wanted to talk to Kaz, more than anything. She wanted his theory because she knew he had one. She wanted to look in his face and find nothing but calm, disinterested understanding of exactly what had happened. It would calm her down, too.
It wasn’t long before she could hear their voices echo through the hall. Inej stood, watching them appear, laden down with bags.
Jesper bounced over to Wylan and took the bags, kissing his cheek with an exaggerated mwah that made Wylan’s entire body go red.
Inej took the bags hanging off Kaz’s cane wrist, peeking inside.
“Wylan picked out your clothes,” he said, while she poked through the clothes they’d bought.
“I tried to pick stuff that looked like what you normally wore,” Wylan said, already sounding apologetic. But Inej was glad to see the leggings and long sleeves and even a long cardigan that would hit her knees. She smiled.
“This is great, Wylan, thank you,” she said.
“Nina told me, uh,” Wylan said, tapping his shoulder. “What to get for that stuff.” Inej smiled again.
“Thank you,” and she meant it. She half-thought the boys would cower away at the idea of buying sports bras and underwear, even though those were the parts of Inej’s current clothes that should probably be burned first.
“There’s more bags in the van,” Kaz said, setting the rest of his bags down. He’d been slower than Wylan. He negotiated with his leg in a way that looked painful, but when he met Inej’s eye, his look was sharp enough she knew not to ask.
They spent the next while unloading a white panel van that had appeared out front. Inej wouldn’t be surprised if it had been tucked away and ready to go with the safehouse, giving them the freedom to go to town if they needed it. She unloaded mostly kitchen items with Kaz while Wylan and Jesper delivered the clothes and medical supplies upstairs.
She knew Kaz was watching her. It wasn’t an accident their pairs had broken off as they had, Kaz giving direction for the supplies. It was an odd thing, to so often be the watcher and find herself watched. But Inej didn’t try to cover up her tiredness or the pain in her shoulder. He’d find out about both sooner or later.
“There are ice packs,” Kaz told her as he brought a bag to the large, walk-in freezer. “If you need them.”
The attempt at a casual afterthought made her snort. Kaz looked up suddenly at the sound, like a flower surprised with sunlight.
Wylan returned with Jesper and the promised Croatian McDonald’s, apparently retrieved from the van. She and Kaz weren’t quite finished with their share of supplies, but Kaz waved her towards the table.
“We’ll eat first,” he said. Inej raised an eyebrow. She’d expected Kaz demand they empty the bags fist, hunt down whoever sold them out, and then maybe eat once they’d extracted their revenge. But Kaz was looking at her with those eyes again, so she followed without complaint. He looked down at the knife in her holster, obviously too small for it. “What’s that?”
“Jesper found it,” Inej said. She flicked it out of the holster, snapping the knife up with ease. Kaz looked at it distastefully. Inej could practically hear his inner monologue – what was she going to do with a pathetic little toothpick like that. She made sure to catch his eye before she rolled hers.
She stalked off to the freezer. When she sat next to Kaz, she folded her legs beneath her and tossed an icepack in his lap. Before he could say anything, she pressed a second icepack to her shoulder with a look that didn’t leave room for argument. He glared but set his icepack on his thigh.
Carrying the bags in, she’d seen the way he carefully negotiated the stairs, expression murderous and uninviting. Now he gritted his teeth as he stretched it out, even propping it on the empty seat on his other side. He shifted the ice pack and held it there while he ate.
Inej’s memory flashed back to the tense hours of their flight – Nina watching Matthias’ every breath, Wylan distracting the stewardess anytime they needed to top up Matthias’ pain meds. And Kaz, beside her in the aisle seat, stretching his leg out over and over and over, continually shifting it with a hard set to his jaw. Inej knew better to comment on it. Instead, she stayed awake next to him, asking quiet questions about artists and art movements. Kaz always answered in an even tone. He’d always been unusually patient when it came to art; Inej thought it was because he was interested in it, as much as he pretended otherwise.
When Kaz stood up at the end of the flight, he used the top of her seat as leverage. He hadn’t even touched her, barely looked at her, but something read like thanks in the lines of his face.
Now he was openly icing his leg in front of them, but his gloves were firmly on. It felt like one step forward and two back.
Inej hid her frown by looking down at her food. Her appetite evaporated as she looked at it. “Where are we?”
“Outside Pula,” Kaz said, “Croatia,” he tacked on after she glanced at him for the qualifier. She saw another command in his face. Eat.
The last time she ate had been… the plane? Kaz had given her the same look so she’d eaten the dry complimentary cookies. Inej took a bite.
“It’s lovely,” Wylan chimed in, hand over his mouth so they didn’t see what he was chewing. Inej was reminded of his upbringing, the gilded halls and beautiful homes he’d told her about before. He swallowed and said, “Pula. Kaz said we could go into town and explore a bit.”
“Within reason,” Kaz interrupted, “And not alone.”
“Of course,” Wylan said, nodding quickly. He looked to Jesper and smiled. Jesper winked back at him. Inej was reasonably certain they were playing footsie under the table.
She glanced at Kaz to make sure he was still using the ice pack.
Footsteps sounded in the hall, and the four of them looked up to see Nina, looking grumpy and dishevelled. Inej’s heart sank.
“And how is Mathias?” Kaz asked brusquely, in a tone he’d use to ask about the weather.
“Resting,” Nina said, “He’ll be fine. He’s out of the woods, definitely, but – the trip was hard on all of us, and we weren’t trying to recover from an hours-old gunshot wound.”
Inej paused, picking at the paper her sandwich had been wrapped in, “I’m so sorry, Nina.”
“No,” Nina cut her off with a stern voice, shaking her head and pointing, “None of us are to blame. None of us except that man. He’s lucky Brekker only bashed his head in. I would’ve done far worse.”
Nina hadn’t actually been there, but Inej couldn’t think of a better way to describe how Kaz had planted the head of his cane in the man’s skull. When they’d reached the van, he’d calmly wiped brain matter from the cane head with a handkerchief.
Kaz nodded once. “Nina’s right. None of us are to blame.” He sat straighter, “I know how they found us. Our client boasted prematurely. The target found out and notified the men who found us at the motel. The target, apparently, had heard of us.”
“Who were they? The men at the hotel? Why were they trying to kill us?” Wylan asked and Inej froze. She hadn’t anticipated this.
Wylan didn’t know about her. He didn’t know where Kaz had found her, where the woman leading them was from. He probably hadn’t even seen the feathers their attackers had pinned to their lapels. The burn scar on Inej’s arm itched suddenly. She pulled her sleeve further over her hand.
“Old enemies of mine,” Kaz said smoothly. Inej looked over at him, intending to send him a grateful look, but his attention was on Wylan. “Old grudges. I don’t know what the woman who sent them wanted, but I’ll find out.”
Inej snuck a look to Jesper, the only other person at the table who knew who Heleen was. He was unusually quiet and when she looked at him, she realized it was because he was being careful. He was watching her subtly, following her lead. She could’ve hugged him then and there.
“And then I’m going to make her eat her own tongue,” Nina said, looking murderous. Kaz nodded, like she’d suggested nothing worse than giving Heleen a stern telling-off. “And maybe a few other things, too.”
“Until then, we lay low,” Kaz said decisively.
But that didn’t sit well with Nina. “I don’t like hiding,” Nina said venomously, “We should find her and ask her what the hell she wanted.”
“We know where she is,” Kaz said, shooting her a look. “And we’re not hiding. We’re waiting.”
“An opportunity,” Kaz replied with his trademark vagueness. His expression made it clear he wasn’t going to be answering further questions. Nina opened her mouth anyways, but Jesper cut her off.
“I don’t mind,” Jesper said easily, leaning back in his chair. “I’m going to go to the beach and soak up as much beautiful coastal sunshine as I can. And then I’m going to eat as much seafood pasta as my lithe and devilishly handsome body can handle.” She knew he was covering for her. Inej sent him a small smile and Jesper bumped his knee against hers beneath the table.
“Matthias needs time to heal,” Kaz intoned. “As do the rest of us. We’ll take a breather and strike once her guard has dropped.”
They spent the next few days setting up the bunker for longer-term occupation. Jesper, unfortunately for Kaz, discovered his inner interior decorator.
“I’m seeing blues,” he said, standing in the main hall of the bunker, the place that had pretended to be a factory floor. Jesper’s hands were in a square as he examined the room.
Inej, sitting with her legs hanging off the catwalk that led to their rooms, leaned her chin on her knee. Wylan turned back to look at her, shrugging in a cheerful, exasperated way.
Jesper flung his arms out suddenly, “And I want to crank the heat, it’s an icebox in here.”
Kaz had the poor timing of emerging from the hall to the kitchen just then. He had the equally poor judgement to reply to Jesper’s statement as he passed. “No,” Kaz said flatly.
Jesper turned, immediately following. “Look, just because you don’t care to show a little skin doesn’t mean all of us don’t want to – “
Kaz had probably hoped the door to his destination would discourage Jesper. No such luck. Jesper followed him into it easily, waving his long arms.
“And another thing, about the greyscale palette that this whole place seems to be painted with…”
Jesper halted in the doorway to continue his onslaught. Inej watched him, holding the door open with his spidery fingers, waving with his free had.
Kaz had claimed the narrow room beyond as his office after that first breakfast and she’d barely seen him since. She still wanted to ask his theory about Heleen – but she turned away from the door anytime she got close to asking. Something about it seemed unbreachable.
Kaz was avoiding her. It made the valley between them uncrossable. He’d done it once before – a job gone bad about a year ago, one that left Inej with a hard white scar over her ribs and an ache that still appeared when it was cold. It was the same job that Kaz had hired on the rest of them, where Inej met Matthias and Nina and Wylan. It was the same job that, immediately upon its finish, Inej announced her retirement and flew home to see her parents. She’d barely lasted a month. When she returned, Kaz acted as if she’d never been gone at all, like she’d never been hurt, and like he hadn’t not spoken to her for more than a month.
“What do you think he does in there?” Wylan asked, breaking her from her thoughts. Inej watched him indicate the office door, where Jesper was still loudly giving his opinion on paint colours. She wasn’t the only one who shared her misgivings about crossing its threshold. Even Nina, set to scold Kaz about leaving dirty dishes in the sink, had done so from the doorway.
“Make plans for world domination?” She suggested, smiling lightly. Wylan beamed. That smile made Inej want to adopt Wylan, swaddle him up and protect him from the world.
The door slammed. Jesper turned, shock written all over his face. “He shut the door in my face!”
Wylan nodded sympathetically, “I saw.”
“Who’s he think he is,” Jesper sputtered. “The – the king of the bunker.”
“Very upsetting,” Wylan said, nodding. Inej bit back her grin. Jesper let out an offended scoff and stomped off, picking up a bundle of fabric he’d brought back from town and marching off with it.
Inej looked to Wylan. “Bless you,” she said. Wylan laughed.
“You’ve put up with him a lot longer than I have,” but Wylan’s voice was undeniably fond.
The others seemed to settle more easily than Inej. Kaz established his office and Jesper took over the decorating, Nina wandered in and out of her and Matthias’ room, looking better each time. But Inej was restless. The amusement she found in her friends always disappeared by nightfall, when the nightmares started to leech in.
They were like oil in the oceans of her mind: coloured silks and men stinking of sweat. Heleen’s nails, always polished and murderously sharp. The bells on her ankles, that would ring and ring and ring with her every move. Inej could never step lightly in her dreams.
New images joined the old ones, somehow even more visceral. The warm spray of Matthias’ blood across her legs. The pressing, claustrophobic halls of the motel. Kaz’s voice calling her name with a kind of panic she’d never heard from him.
When she woke the third night, she was already moving, pushing out of bed and to the bathroom. She kneeled in front of the toilet and emptied her stomach into it, hands shaking and acid burning her throat.
Inej sunk back against the wall afterwards, breathing shakily. She sunk her fingers into her hair and tried to focus on breathing.
She hadn’t had a nightmare for months, hadn’t had one that bad in more than a year. Their reappearance, almost more than their content, frightened her. She thought she’d healed from this. Inej thought she was past this.
Relapse. The word echoed in her mind, ruthless and sincere.
There was a woman that Inej saw after Kaz picked her up, at his insistence. Apparently he’d heard her throwing up every night since he took her in. He told her he wouldn’t employ a liability and handed her a card with an appointment slot printed on it.
So Inej went. She hadn’t gone long enough, hadn’t made it to every appointment, but the time wasn’t wasted. She had tools.
Her mind swam with all that language from therapy, stuck points and over-generalizations and mind-reading and emotional reasoning. She tried to pick something to focus on, pick a specific fear to dig out of her, to isolate and try to pick apart. But it was all tangled up. Her mind was reeling. She couldn’t focus on anything with any clarity. She pressed her head against the cold cement wall, looking up at the fluorescent light above the mirror.
She needed – she needed to move. To breathe. To clear her head a little.
Inej stood, willing her knees to steady. She pushed open the window and ripped the screen out of place, then eased herself out on to the wall. It was made of brick, so it was easy enough to find tiny ledges for the edges of her toes, to grip with her fingertips and ignore the way it scraped.
See? She told herself, making a tricky hop between loose bricks, standing on tiny fractions of her toes with ease. You’re still powerful. Still dangerous.
Inej hauled herself onto the roof. The first dredges of sunlight were creeping over the horizon.
Powerful. Dangerous. She whispered it to herself like a prayer. But all she could think of was Kaz and the word liability, repeating over and over again in her head. The sunrise looked fluorescent to her, bright white and cracked when the next bullet missed her.
Jesper found a room off the kitchen that had a big couch and the perfect stand for a television that happened to appear in their van. Magically. That was how Jesper explained it to the factory floor where Inej had been trying to climb up to the glass ceiling. The announcement hadn’t been for her benefit, however; Kaz had happened to walk out onto the floor right when Jesper and Wylan tottered in with the monstrous box.
“I heard the Croatian people are very generous,” Wylan added a little too loudly. He was barely visible over the huge TV box. Inej reached for the nearest ledge, swinging herself up on it to watch.
But Kaz didn’t try to stop them. He just shook his head and kept going, hardly slowing on his way to his office. Once he disappeared into his office, Jesper and Wylan high-fived – very nearly dropping the television in the process. Inej watched the two of them wrestle the over-large TV into the hall, an amused smile touching her lips and almost distracting from the dark bags beneath her eyes.
Over the next few days, the rest of the crew slowly drifted into what Wylan and Jesper termed the den. Inej was first, taking up a space on a narrow bench built into the wall, a window seat without a window. Nina slipped in and stole the best, softest spot on the couch, a fact Inej only knew because Jesper and Wylan immediately tried to challenge her for it. Aside from Matthias, still on bedrest, Kaz was the only one who didn’t try to claim a spot in the den. He was too busy, stuck inside his office.
When Jesper and Wylan finally figured out all the cables and got the television going, they called everyone in. Inej assumed it would only be the four of them, so it was a surprise when Matthias appeared in the doorway, surveying the room from his crutches. Jesper and Wylan were distracted, bickering about what to watch, but Nina jumped up immediately, looking like she’d been presented with Christmas six months early.
“Matthias!” Jesper belted when he saw him. He popped up from the couch, moving to Wylan’s other side to give him room. Inej drew a knee up, circling her arm around it.
Matthias was pale but he was upright and even smiling a little. He let Nina guide him to the spot she’d just vacated on the couch, which happened to be nearest to Inej.
“Finally got tired of lazing in bed, did you?” Jesper teased. Nina was in the middle of helping Matthias lower to the couch, but Matthias still managed to lift a hand and flip Jesper off. Jesper laughed and clapped him on the shoulder for it.
Wylan and Jesper began to explain the argument they were in – nature documentary versus pawn shop reality show – each trying to sway Matthias to their side. Inej picked at a loose seam on the knee of her leggings, watching Matthias closely from the corner of her eye.
“Would you two shut it,” Nina’s voice was cheery, despite her words, “Obviously, Matthias is going to pick what we watch next. What will it be? Some weird church channel? Or what about sports? I know you love sports. Especially the one with the ball and the field.”
Matthias sent her an amused look, “Anything is fine.”
“No, I think you want sports. What’s the one with the kicking and the ball?” Nina cast around, snapping, like she’d said something extremely clear and someone should know the answer.
Matthias looked at her, “Football?”
“No, I don’t think that’s it,” Nina tapped a finger on her chin. “The one with the tackling?”
“Rugby,” Inej suggested. Nina pointed her.
“Yes, thank you, Inej! You’re as intelligent as you are lovely,” Nina said. She waved at Wylan and Jesper, “Find the rugby.”
“I don’t think anything is going to be on,” Wylan said a bit cautiously.
“Because it’s ten in the morning? And Tuesday?”
Nina thought about that for a moment. “Oh. Well. What sports are on at ten in the morning?”
Wylan glanced between them. “Golf, maybe?”
“Put on the nature thing,” Matthias said.
Jesper flipped the channel until he settled on the nature documentary Wylan had wanted and sighed, flopping over onto Wylan’s shoulder like it was a consolation prize. Wylan laughed and ruffled Jesper’s hair. Nina brought Matthias’ hand into her lap, thumbs rolling over the back of it, curling around him like she belonged there.
Inej looked to the doorway. She wondered again what Kaz was doing. Plotting revenge, most likely.
Nina suddenly popped up out of her spot again, making Matthias’ eyebrows meet in the middle. “Elskede,” Matthias said, his favourite term of endearment, “Come sit.”
“No,” Nina was shaking her head with a smile, “You deserve snacks. All of them. I’ll be right back.” She leaned forward and kissed his head, skipping off with a bright smile in Matthias’ direction. Matthias smiled after her.
Inej watched Nina leave too, watched her figure disappear down the narrow hall, and something rushed over her. The cement bunker hall warped into a sickly yellow, with fluorescent so bright she had to squint. Nina was gone. In her place were two men with feathers pinned to their lapels, reeking of too much cologne. Guns in their hands.
Inej pressed herself hard against the bench, willing it to ground her. The hall changed back to dim cement. Her heart was racing. She made a fist on her knee. Her eyes dropped shut of their own accord.
They’d been aiming for Inej. They’d shouted her name and raised their guns and they’d been aiming for her. Matthias had yanked her away so hard her shoulder had been sore ever since. He’d yanked her behind him, stepping in the way of the bullet. He’d done nothing more than grunt when it hit him, the warm spray of his blood coating her legs, felt even through her pants.
The den was so cozy. Wylan and Jesper were warm and affectionate, the television bright and soothing. Nina was so full of love for him, so kind and devoted – and Matthias could’ve been taken away from it, all of it. All because of Inej.
Inej leaned towards him and said, very quietly, “Thank you, Matthias. I should’ve said so before.”
Matthias looked at her incredulously. “I’m not being left without a single voice of reason on this damn team.” Then he smiled and Inej returned it, tentatively.
Inej began to haunt the bunker anytime she had a nightmare, wandering silently, too agitated to go back to sleep. Her room felt too cramped. Her bed – she didn’t want to think about her bed.
So she wandered. Pacing the halls, exploring the dark, cold tunnels that made up the bunker. Inej knew the trigger for all this was Heleen and her men, appearing at a motel all the way in Canada, where Inej should’ve felt safer than ever. But the liminal space they were trapped in was making it worse. She didn’t know what to do with herself. For the last two years, it had been job after job, jetting straight to the next one the night the other had been finished. Occasionally they stopped over in Amsterdam, where Kaz had an apartment, and they’d stay there for a day or two before they were off again. Everything had an expiry date, a deadline they had to meet. Even seeing her parents, which she thought would be the end of it, which she thought would be her home forever – it didn’t last. But the bunker – for now, it was indefinite.
It was overwhelming to think these walls could be it for the time being.
Even before Kaz and before the Menagerie, she’d been constantly on the move with her parents, staying in places for a week at a time at most. It was the same when she returned, packed into caravans and sleeping under the stars. Now they’d passed that important marker and Inej was restless, a feeling only exasperated by the dreams.
Briefly, she wondered about calling her parents. They’d had sporadic contact since she’d first returned. But anytime Inej spoke with them, they would invite her back, and deep guilt would twist up her stomach. She knew that she didn’t belong there anymore. And now, it seemed, returning to them, even calling them, could put them in danger. Inej had thought Heleen had finally forgotten her. Apparently not.
That night, she’d dreamt of the motel halls again, a maze of horrible, crushing walls that slowly sank closer and closer. And it wasn’t Matthias that got shot – it was Kaz, blood pouring out of his bad leg, the smell so heady it made her sick. His dying words were to call her a liability.
In the maze beneath the factory-façade, Inej kept her right hand on the right wall. She’d read in a novel once that it was the best way to keep from getting lost and hoped it was true. She’d found an old torch in the kitchen beneath the sink soon after she fled her dreams, and though they kept the lights on all the time, she liked the security of it. It would do just as well to crack a skull as light a hallway.
There’s no one else down here, she told herself, over and over again. This safehouse is safe. But she couldn’t quite make herself believe it.
The passage Inej was in bowed left and she emerged into a hall she thought she recognized. Inej kept walking. Sure enough, she arrived in the kitchen a moment later. Inej sighed, crossing her arms. The clock over the stove read four-thirty. She should really try to get some sleep.
Instead, she turned back and walked towards the den. Before she reached it, Inej turned right, down a passage she hadn’t explored yet. Another right and she found herself in a room with a tower of desks, covered in dust sheets, all stacked neatly. There was another hall that branched off, leading further below ground, with a staircase that didn’t seem to end.
Inej hesitated at its top as vertigo washed over her. Her vision went double. The long bunker hall was gone, replaced by the narrow motel hall, somehow impossibly bright and long enough that the end was shrouded in darkness. The stale, sour air of the bunker this deep was the exact same of the motel hall.
She turned around and went back upstairs to the main hall.
As Inej emerged, the door to Kaz’s office opened too. He stopped short, three empty mugs in hand. Kaz looked at her and said, “You haven’t been sleeping.”
It was nearly morning. Kaz was wearing the same suit she’d seen him in the day before and, as evidenced by the mugs he was holding, Kaz had been surviving on a liquid diet of coffee.
Inej raised an eyebrow and replied, “Well spotted.” She couldn’t keep the irony out of her voice.
Over the last few days, Inej had only seen him in glimpses. Heard his cane as he took a different hall, seen the end of his suit jacket as he rounded a corner away from them. She’d started to suspect he’d been sleeping in his ‘office’ and had initially written it off kindly: perhaps the stairs to the rest of their rooms were too much for his leg. But now Inej wondered something else.
Inej met his eye. “For a minute there, I thought you’d left.”
Kaz’s attention snapped to her. Something in his expression… it was hard to read. “You didn’t.”
Oddly, it sounded like a question. Inej relented, shook her head. “I didn’t. But I wouldn’t blame anyone who did. You don’t even eat with us, Kaz.”
Kaz arched an eyebrow, “Do you want me to?” It sounded like he was trying to please a child. Inej’s temper was already paper-thin; this wasn’t helping. She tried to remind herself why she was raising this point in the first place.
Inej crossed her arms and settled on honesty, “What I want is to stop sitting around, waiting for something to happen.”
Kaz didn’t soften. He didn’t, as a rule. But something in his expression… it calmed. The lines on his face became less deep. “She won’t find us here, Inej. I’ve made certain of it.”
“Did you make certain of it in Canada, too?”
He recoiled like she’d slapped him, but she needed to know. It was one of the nasty little stuck-point-thoughts in her head: Kaz got sloppy. She needed to know she could trust him.
“I didn’t count on the client bragging,” he allowed. ”But I’ve had this safehouse for years, along with others. I have burner identities and cash and supplies in every continent we work in. There are variables, always, that are beyond my control, so I make up for it in what I can.”
It was a very Kaz answer. Very neutral. Straightforward. He didn’t try to lie to her, to tell her he could control anything and everything. She’d never appreciated that blunt honesty so much.
And there was something else in there too – something that felt almost like an apology. Inej was glad she was leaned back on the wall already, so it wasn’t obvious when the wall needed to take more of her weight.
They’d been in the process of fleeing the motel when the men appeared. Kaz caught wind of it minutes before and they were running, heading out to meet Jesper, Nina, and Wylan in the van. They got caught in the hallways, trapped like rats in a maze.
The original plan had been to go straight to the airport, but it was foiled the second Matthias got shot. They couldn’t board a plane until he was at least sewn up. Instead, they went to another safehouse Kaz had on the outskirts of the city, and it had been filled with Nina and Wylan’s raised voices over Matthias’ pained groans for what felt like hours, as they communicated about medication and getting the bullet out and closing the wound.
But once they went quiet, the silence seemed to press on them. It had been too much to bear for Inej, whose thoughts had become the loudest thing in the old brownstone.
She spent the night checking every window and every lock, pacing silently through the house. In between checks, she sat at the dining room table, staring at the front door, knife balanced in her hands. That was where Kaz found her. Wordlessly, he’d put a cup of coffee in front of her before settling next to her, scribbling away in his notebook things that would, undoubtably, have kept until morning.
He hadn’t wavered. He hadn’t said anything, somehow knowing talking was the last thing she needed. He didn’t even ask her to explain herself or tell her what to do – Kaz just sat with her quietly and followed her lead.
Then they were rushing for the airport and collapsing in the bunker, and Inej hadn’t even thought to thank him for the quiet kindness he pretended hadn’t happened at all. He had a habit of that – of giving her quiet, private kindnesses then disappearing for days after. She was tired of it.
“There’s another thing you could do,” Inej told him. Kaz stood a little straighter. “Don’t disappear on us,” she said. She meant don’t disappear on me. Inej looked him in those bitter coffee eyes. He needed to know she was serious.
Inej was about to turn away when Kaz blurted out to her.
“I’ve got us a job. Local. It’s up to you if we take it.”
It was like rehearsing for a performance she’d run a hundred times. Something about it drew Inej’s chin up, made her straighten her spine. The energy in the bunker changed, too. Though only Jesper and Inej would pull off the job, everyone was eager to help. Nina took over surveillance. Wylan tested out half a dozen smoke bombs, and Matthias spent hours bent over his computer, figuring out guard schedules.
The target wasn’t their painting; it was a vault. A specialized kind of vault Kaz wanted to know how to crack, for when they inevitably came across one in the future. The kind of vault that was quickly being lapped up by private collectors (Inej rolled her eyes: most of those collections were stolen or stolen and inherited from actual Nazis).
They would steal the vault directly from the supplier, who would cover it up to serve their best interest: if any clients caught wind of the security company being robbed, it made them a lot less profitable. Then Kaz would crack it, and they would sell the vault itself off to the highest bidder.
When Kaz was offering Inej her position, he described their job as stealing from the rich and selling to the richer – often, to steal it back and sell it again. Inej had thought he’d been exaggerating, but she’d already restolen at least three different paintings for different clients, and no one had been the wiser.
She missed their apartment. It hit her with a suddenness that surprised her, without any clear trigger. She was standing over some notes Kaz had left for her and it hit her, a deep longing for that apartment that Kaz bought and moved Jesper, then Inej, into, all minimalist and so clean Inej was always nervous about disturbing it.
Maybe it was the bunker. Maybe she was sick of all the plain cement walls, when the apartment in Amsterdam was covered in stolen art, including the Gentileschi Inej had stolen as proof she would be good for the team. It was a gruesome image depicting a grinning Salome with John the Baptist’s head on a platter. She’d expected Kaz to offload the painting as soon as he could. But he’d surprised her and hung it on the wall outside his bedroom, so it was the first thing he saw in the morning.
Jesper would leave bullets and makeup in little piles all over the apartment but Inej was always sure to clean up after herself, to keep her meager belongings confined to her room. Even when she sat in the living room, she was careful not to take up more than her allotted cushion on the couch or the spot on the windowsill. She’d caught Kaz’s looks, the glares he fixed on the dirty dishes Jesper left in the sink and the boots he carelessly left at the door. She ensured she didn’t do the same – not even a hair tie was left in the bathroom.
There was one night where they’d returned late from a job, all three still too keyed up to sleep. Kaz took a seat at his desk, presumably finding a new job, while Jesper sprawled across the couch in front of the TV. Inej perched in her favourite spot, balanced carefully on the windowsill, peering down into the canal.
The lights in the apartment lowered slowly as it got later. Some fancy setting Kaz had programmed into the apartment. Maybe to try to stop himself from working too late. Maybe to ensure that was exactly what he did. Whatever effect they had on Kaz, Inej wasn’t sure. She thought they were relaxing; they always made her bones feel a bit looser.
That apartment was the first place she felt safe enough to relax out in the open like that; it was the first place she could actually fall asleep without a room to herself and a locked door.
Jesper’s voice had called her back from sleep an hour later. “Love, I doubt you want to sleep there.”
Inej had sat up, immediately casting around for the mug she’d been holding – it had been empty, but if she’d dropped it, it would’ve smashed. It was nowhere to be found, however. Not on the seat next to her, or the floor, or any of the tables in the room. Inej finally found it, already cleaned and dried, returned to the little shelf of mugs in their kitchen.
Kaz had pointedly not looked at her.
Inej’s face still burned at the memory, at how she’d fled to her room and stayed there the rest of the night, embarrassed and ashamed she was embarrassed at all. She loved that apartment, but she loved jobs more. The spaces between missions – those were harder to navigate. But this? Planning for a job, getting to steal something – she knew exactly how to do that. She could earn her keep and more on a job.
Jesper swore the whole way down the hall as they carried the desk from Kaz’s office into the den. He’d requested it out of the blue, and Inej didn’t know what surprised her more: the move itself, or that Kaz actually asked for help. Maybe his leg was more sore than he was letting on; maybe he was actually listening to her.
Inej stood shoulder to shoulder with Nina on one end, Jesper and Wylan on the other. She didn’t think she’d ever missed Matthias’ brute strength more.
Kaz stood in the back of the den behind the couch, where he wanted the desk laid, watching them calmly. “Lift with your legs, Jesper. I need your back for the job,” he advised brusquely. Inej bit back her smile as Jesper complained louder.
“Oh, move this massive desk across the bunker, Jesper,” Jesper intoned, panting and sweating, “No, I won’t explain why, Jesper, I just want you to bust your pert arse for my own perverse enjoyment.”
Wylan smiled through his laboured breathing. “I love when you say perverse enjoyment.”
Jesper grinned over at him, “I’ll show you perverse enjoyment.”
“Once we put it down,” Nina squeezed the words out between deep breaths, “You can show each other all the perverse enjoyment you want. Once we… put it… down.”
They finally dropped the desk at the back of the room, the desk hitting the ground a bit hard on the boys’ side. Inej straightened, putting her hands in the small of her back and stretching a bit, watching as Kaz wheeled a whiteboard over. There was writing all over it – details of the job, ones he’d already reviewed a dozen times with her.
Jesper took Wylan’s hand. “I think I promised you something, sweetheart,” he said, smiling slowly. Inej shook her head.
“I thought the honeymoon phase would be over by now,” Inej said, charmed despite herself.
“With this one?” Jesper asked, arm draped across Wylan’s shoulder, “Never.” Wylan went pink enough that Inej forgave the ensuing PDA.
The thump of Kaz’s cane provided a distraction. It drew her back, a ship to a lighthouse, and she turned to Kaz. He’d moved to sit at the desk, lining his fingertips together as he examined the whiteboard.
“Why do you need a desk, anyways?” Jesper asked from behind them, “You have an office. And there’s a couch!”
“Maybe I simply wanted my own space,” Kaz offered. Jesper sent an offended look to Inej, but she shifted to sit on Kaz’s desk and shrugged.
“Can you blame him, after Malta?”
“You accidentally have sex on your coworkers’ couch once,” Jesper sighed.
“How does that happen accidentally?” Kaz asked, looking over his shoulder.
“It was dark,” Jesper whined, the thousandth refrain of this song. The Malta incident was pre-Wylan, so Wylan was watching with interest.
Inej looked at Wylan, “It’s why we implemented the rule about no one outside the team in the base.”
“Which should’ve been common sense,” Kaz replied.
“Technically, that was related,” Jesper argued. Then he turned to Wylan, “And a complete let down, compared to everything with you. I am leagues happier as a monogamous, taken man, thank you.”
Wylan smiled and even went a little red. Kaz made an annoyed noise as they made eyes at each other, ignoring them both and turning back to the whiteboard. Inej glanced over her shoulder at it. She didn’t need to follow his eyeline to know he was looking at the things he’d underlined in red, the places where they were left open, or particularly vulnerable points for Inej or Jesper. As it went, Inej had a fair number of risks on the job.
Kaz had started coming to eat meals with them. He’d joined Inej and Nina on their daily walk. He moved his desk into the den. He was trying.
She had one leg hanging off the desk. She poked him gently with her toe.
“What do we need to do today?” She asked. Kaz took out his notebook and opened it, pointing to a page.
“How confident do you feel about this?”
Their plans took a little over a week. They were working on a deadline and the den turned into a workroom, one they’d built on hotel floors and shabby rented rooms and abandoned garages. Wylan took over the bench built into the wall, spreading a careful collection of chemicals along its back. Inej moved to sit on Kaz’s desk, one knee drawn up against her chest and facing the whiteboard while Kaz went over every detail, dictating notes for her to add to the whiteboard. Even Matthias offered ideas, spread out on the couch with his head in Nina’s lap and one of Nina’s strange little charcuterie boards on his lap (a chipped plate with half a pack of salami and crumbs from cheese Nina had stolen before it reached him).
They prepared as much as they could for what, in the end, would be a relatively simple job. The vault would be moved tomorrow, which was their chance to grab it. They were working towards a deadline.
The night before, Inej stood at her bedroom’s window, watching the rain fall with apprehension. If it didn’t clear up by morning, it would make their task much harder. It would make her job much harder. But the rain wasn’t the only thing pressing down on her. She was wide awake, equally stressed about nightmares and not being well rested for the job.
If she’d been asleep, however, she may have missed the soft knock on her door.
Inej opened the door and found Kaz standing there, holding a box a little shorter than her forearm. But she barely noticed it, because Kaz’s hands were bare, pale and long-fingered. It was the first time she’d seen them bare in a while. Kaz’s hands always struck her as delicate. Lockpick’s fingers, lily-white compared to his already-pale skin.
Inej had noticed she’d seen his hands less and less lately. Before Canada, his gloves had been coming off in increments, even coming off in their safehouses and in quiet periods during jobs. But ever since the motel, they’d been firmly on. She hadn’t so much as seen a flash of his wrist.
But then Inej realized – maybe she wasn’t the only one who’d relapsed. Maybe she wasn’t the only one who’d spiralled at a loss of control. Maybe he wasn’t avoiding her because he was angry.
Inej tore her eyes away from Kaz’s hands and looked in his face. He licked his lips.
“May I come in?” He’d pitched his voice low. How late was it? Inej had lost track.
She stepped aside, gesturing for him to come in. Kaz walked past her, nodding his thanks.
Kaz stood in the middle of her room, far from the small bed she’d shoved against the window. She found it helped, being able to look up at the open sky. Other than the bed and the bag of clothes she’d been living out of, her room was empty. She knew the others had added personal touches – Wylan had taped up postcards from Pula, Nina had found a dresser for her and Matthias’ clothes. But Inej’s room was as bare as the day they’d arrived.
Kaz glowered at the room in general. Inej looked around, wondering what about the sparse room upset him. She hardly had anything that could be offensive to him.
“I got this for you,” Kaz said suddenly, thrusting the box out towards her. Inej’s eyes dropped to his hands again, and she had to remind herself to look at the box instead. It was black but covered in a hundred little, tiny flowers, all drawn with one line, that connected and twisted and turned over itself, again and again.
Inej took the box, looking back into Kaz’s face. He swallowed.
She opened the box, moving the grey tissue paper out of the way, and revealing a knife.
It was beautiful – the blade was longer than her hand and curved in the shape of a flower petal. Smooth steel was fed all the way through the sturdy handle, so they wouldn’t separate under duress. It was finely balanced too, a little long for throwing, and but it would fly nicely enough if it had to.
The knife had to be custom made. Everything from the shape and length of the blade to the tiny details etched into the handle. Everything chosen and specified with the utmost care.
“Kaz,” she said quietly. A custom blade like this – it must’ve cost a small fortune.
“I grew tired of seeing that pathetic strip of scrap metal in your holster,” Kaz drawled, glaring at the walls again. Inej didn’t buy it for a moment. But she decided her thanks would be not to call him on it. She smiled instead.
“Thank you so much, Kaz,” she said, “I really appreciate it.”
If it had been Jesper or Nina, she would’ve taken their hands. She would’ve hugged them. But it wasn’t. But Kaz wasn’t wearing his gloves.
Carefully, making sure Kaz’s eyes tracked it the whole way, she reached out her hand. She dragged one finger down the back of his hand, watching Kaz suddenly go very, very still. As her finger slipped off his knuckle, he shivered.
“It’s the same size as your holster,” Kaz said, a bit loud, trying to distract from the shiver, she thought. “I made sure of it.” He sounded a little hoarser than normal.
“Thank you,” she said again. Kaz nodded then turned.
“Get some sleep,” he said, once again leaning more heavily on his cane. But she saw the way his free hand lifted to the one holding his cane; she saw the way his hand traced the line Inej made.
Inej leaned right with Jesper, the bike gliding smoothly under them. She was glad he was driving. She was lucky her usual grace transferred to motorbiking, but it was about her only skill that did. Inej was far more confident with Jesper at the helm. And, she noted, he was probably the person she was most comfortable being this close to.
In the circus she’d grown up in, there was a motorbike like this one. A man named Gregor who would ride the bike in a cage, going in every direction, even upside down. But it wasn’t his act that stuck out in Inej’s mind; it was his kindness. He was married to one of the men who sold cotton candy and popcorn to the crowd, and he’d regularly sweettalk his husband into giving Inej and her cousins treats. She could still remember the way her fingers would get sticky, the way it dissolved on her tongue.
Inej was also glad the job didn’t require them to ride like Gregor.
Jesper tilted again, winding around a little bug of a car. He edged onto the sidewalk to do so, the street was so narrow. Kaz had chosen this part of road for the job on purpose, thinking the tight road would give them an advantage. For a moment, she hoped Kaz knew what he was talking about. But she caught herself and corrected herself mid-thought: she knew Kaz knew what he was talking about. She had to trust him.
The box truck was in their sights. Huge and white, unmarked. The company had decided on only one guard for the transport, according to Kaz’s intel. After all, who’d try to steal an empty five-hundred-pound vault?
Jesper tilted right, easing the bike around to the passenger side. Inej squeezed him around the middle to signal before letting go and smashing the butt of her new knife into the passenger window. It shattered. Inej drew Wylan’s smoke bomb off her hip, tossing it overhead not the shattered window.
The van immediately swerved, but Jesper was ready, already gunning the engine and swinging in front of it. He dropped back, falling in line with the driver’s window as it rolled down, the driver trying to disperse the smoke.
Inej carefully moved to crouch on the seat, getting her feet underneath her. But the truck swerved again, forcing Jesper to do the same, and Inej held on tight, her helmet accidentally knocking into the back of his. Once he had them levelled out, he edged back towards the driver’s window, trying to get nice and close for Inej.
As soon as they were close enough, she patted his shoulder in warning. Then she stood and leapt.
Inej caught her elbows around the open driver’s window, winding herself as the door slammed into her ribs, but she still reached for the driver inside. Her knife made quick work of his seatbelt before she opened the door from the inside and, muttering a prayer, dragged the driver out and into the road.
She swung herself forward, shutting the door, and slithered in the still-open window. Inej could feel the van slowing down and quickly righted herself, setting her foot on the gas and getting the van back under control. She waved at Jesper before peeling down the road, turning hard at the next left.
Inej felt adrenaline shoot through her again. Under her helmet, she started to beam.
The vault was a monstrous thing, taking up a good chunk of the main hall floor. They had to unload it with a forklift that Kaz procured from… somewhere, after he scanned it for any tracking devices. There were none, of course. Why bother with an empty vault?
Once they had it unloaded, the six of them gathered around it, peering closely.
“Why don’t we just blow it?” Jesper asked impatiently.
“Because I like to think we’re above blowing it,” Kaz replied calmly. “No offence, Wylan.”
Wylan smirked. “None taken. Though it would be faster.”
“It’s a puzzle,” Inej explained, “He wants to solve it.” Kaz looked at her. She raised her eyebrow, daring him to deny it. He didn’t.
“The whole point of stealing it is to figure it out,” Kaz said. Privately, Inej thought, on a job, blowing the door was probably going to be their fastest option. But she remembered his hands the night before. She remembered that maybe she wasn’t the only one grasping anything for some semblance of control.
Jesper mimicked him unflatteringly, unseen over his shoulder. Inej grinned at him but her laugh was stopped in its tracks. She was holding an icepack to her stomach – she’d connected a bit harder with the driver’s door than she’d meant, beating the soft underside of her ribs hard enough to bruise.
Kaz walked around the edge of the vault, peering at the hinges. As he passed Inej, his eyes lingered on the ice pack before jumping up to her face. His voice was pitched low, under the din the rest of the Crows were making. “Beautifully done,” Kaz told her, a smile touching his lips, “As always.”
Inej felt her smile dawn slowly, unused to such an earnest compliment from him.
With a sudden giddy rush of energy, she stepped forward and found a bolt to hook her toes on, hauling herself up on top of the vault one-handed. Inej walked the top of it, looking at it closely, but nothing presented itself as an easy solution for breaking into it.
She sat down, hanging her legs off the vault and turning her attention to Kaz. She looked to Jesper, his shoulder at level with her feet.
“Scheming face,” she said, head tilted towards him. Jesper smirked.
The vault became the centerpiece of the bunker. At any given moment, at least a couple of them were staring at it, knocking on it, trying to pry the hinges off. Kaz, in particular, had taken up vigil in front of it, never touching it. He simply stood, arms crossed, and stared, as he ran through every possibility methodically in his head.
Nina, who’d shared the opinion they should just blow the doors and be done with it, had very little patience for the thing.
“We’re having a girls’ only movie night,” Nina proclaimed at dinner, standing suddenly and holding up a DVD copy of a romcom she’d procured from… somewhere. “And no boys are invited.”
Wylan looked at the movie in her hands. “Oh, I love romcoms.”
“We’ll watch it together tomorrow,” Nina assured him, “But tonight, I need my Inej time.”
A warm feeling unfurled in Inej’s chest. She smiled and nodded her assent.
An hour later, she found herself down den, curled under a soft blanket Nina had brought. Jesper had followed them to the door, whining about being left out, but Inej had a feeling it was more to do with the waffles Nina had procured than anything. Her theory was proven when Nina shut the door and joined her on the couch.
“I had to bribe him with a waffle to go away,” she said, shaking her head. “Boys.”
Inej smiled, watching Nina come to sit across from her on the couch. Inej leaned her shoulder against the back of the couch, taking the plate of waffles that Nina offered her.
“Speaking of,” Inej said, “How’s Matthias feeling?”
Nina shook her head again, but this time it was fond. “He’s learned that he can ask me for anything if he pairs it with a bit of whining about being in pain. I think the more he complains, the better he feels.”
“A good sign, then,” Inej said, forgoing the fork and knife and eating the waffle with her hands. Nina followed her lead with a smirk.
“Exactly,” Nina said. She shifted, facing Inej more. “But I don’t want to talk about boys. I want to talk about you.”
Inej looked up from her waffles, “About how graceful and impressive I am?” Her ribs were still sore, but she barely noticed. She was still awash with victory. She’d actually slept through the night. Nina laughed.
“Precisely,” Nina leaned in,” Because I don’t think someone as powerful and incredible as you should be trembling at every door slam.”
Inej looked back to her waffles, carefully tearing off an edge. She fiddled with it instead of ate it, picking it apart before she answered. “Sometimes people like me can’t help it.”
“Oh, Inej,” Nina said quietly. “What can I do?”
Inej stared at her waffle and considered it. She wanted jobs. Excuses to throw her deadly knives, to traipse across the skylines. But she also needed this.
“Quiet,” Inej said, “Like this. Check ins. Time to… catch my breath. Reminders to do it.”
Nina smiled, taking Inej’s hand carefully. She pressed a kiss to it. “I love you, Inej. Of course. Girls’ nights will be regular.”
Inej smiled, “I love you too, Nina. Thank you.” Nina hugged Inej’s hand to her chest, like she knew anything more would be overwhelming. Inej breathed out, slowly and controlled.
That night, it was Nina who fell in the hallway. Nina who suffered a bullet in her leg. Nina who was conscious as she was dragged off into the dark by Heleen’s clawed hands.
Inej slipped off the bed to sit on the floor. At least she wasn’t rushing for the toilet anymore. At least she wasn’t breathing so hard she’d make herself throw up again.
She retrieved the blank journal she’d stolen from Kaz’s stack, a pen from a zippered pocket on her bag. There were exercises Inej remembered, words and ideas her therapist taught her to practice.
Was her dream an exaggeration? Yes, of course. Nina hadn’t been shot; she hadn’t even been there, Nina had already been in the van. Was the source dependable? No. Dream logic wasn’t logic at all. It was an exaggeration of her worst fears, and there was that buzzword her therapist loved so much: exaggeration.
She moved through the list. Inej was confusing what was possible with what was actually likely. She was focused on unrelated parts. But her fear – Heleen being a monster, going after her friends – that wasn’t an unsubstantiated fear. It was a fact. It had happened. Her fear wasn’t unwarranted, just feeding on itself.
One problematic pattern of thinking her therapist identified was her tendency to mindread. Inej assumed the motives of others, and, usually for the worst; she assumed danger at every corner because, for two years under Heleen, that was all she experienced. She was assuming Kaz didn’t take adequate precautions. She was assuming Nina heralded anger for her for putting Matthias in danger, assuming they all blamed her for her connection to Heleen. She was assuming she knew Heleen’s motives.
After writing the last line, she paused, examining it. She was assuming she knew Heleen’s motives.
Inej hadn’t escaped her. Kaz had bought her contract, paid Heleen off. She’d been assuming all this time Heleen had tracked her down to cause terror, and maybe she had – Heleen loved terror – but she loved money, too. Maybe more than terror. Why would she spend money to chase Inej to Canada, when she could’ve done it anytime in Europe?
The usual answer came to mind: Kaz made a mistake. But Kaz didn’t make mistakes. What would Heleen want that she would need Inej for, specifically? Or: what would Heleen want that she would need the Crows for?
Inej stood, setting the notebook on the bed. She needed to move, suddenly. She needed to think.
She left her room, stepping lightly out onto the grated platform, moving so gently it didn’t creak beneath her. There was a light on down on the factory floor that illuminated her way.
Inej wasn’t surprised to find Kaz there, staring at the vault, mug in hand. He looked up when she settled next to him wordlessly. He must’ve read something in her face because he held out his mug.
Inej took it, drinking deeply. The coffee had gone cold, and he drank it black, but she barely noticed. A strange well of calm had settled over her. She didn’t know Heleen’s intentions. Somehow, even that thought was driven from her mind for a moment as she drank the coffee – because, for that moment, all she could think of was the fact that her lips were touching the place Kaz’s mouth had been. That he was watching her carefully.
Inej looked up at him, licking her lips involuntarily. Kaz looked back to the vault.
“Are you,” Kaz asked quickly, paused, and said, “Are you alright?”
Inej could think of a hundred questions to deflect him – I’m not the one staring at a vault in the middle of the night and I got you this vault, didn’t I? – but she shook her head. “No,” she said, biting her tongue so she didn’t add the not yet. She didn’t need to qualify it. She didn’t need to promise him any outcome. All he was asking about was now.
“Are you?” She asked in return.
Kaz’s voice was quiet, “No.” But he offered no follow up.
She looked at him, “Why the vault, Kaz?”
Kaz watched the vault calmly, “To crack it. I told you.”
Inej didn’t relent. “Why else?”
But he didn’t answer her, staring hard at the vault. Slowly, the edge of his mouth turned up. Inej cradled the cup close to her chest. She was close to getting angry, close to demanding he stop keeping secrets. But something about his expression gave her pause.
“I want,” he started, stopped again. “It’s a surprise,” he settled on. Inej didn’t normally like surprises. But there was something unexpectedly boyish in Kaz’s expression. Something she didn’t get to see very often.
Inej took another sip of Kaz’s coffee and let herself relax. Her elbow drifted into his – hers covered in her sleeve, his bare from the way he’d rolled up the sleeve of his shirt. Only Kaz would still be wearing a button down and vest when they were in hiding, in a bunker in the middle of the night.
Kaz stopped and looked at her. The simple question seemed to stump him. “Why a… surprise?” He sounded uncertain.
“Not just that. Why steal the vault,” Inej said, “We both know you could figure it out in a pinch, even if that meant blowing the door. When have you ever needed practice with a vault? Why plan a surprise?”
Kaz froze. Quietly, somewhat reluctantly, he said, “You know why.”
“I wouldn’t be asking if I did,” she said.
Kaz’s voice was tight and almost angry, “Because you won’t settle.”
Inej paused. That – that wasn’t what she expected. But Kaz kept going.
“Because when we’re back at our apartment, you clean up any trace you’ve been there. Because you don’t even leave shampoo in the bathroom. Because your room here is bare and you’re living out of a bag. You have space here, Inej, that you’re entitled to take up. That I want you to take up.”
She remembered the way he watched her move about the apartment. He hadn’t been waiting for a slip-up, but for her to get comfortable. For her to make that apartment her home. He hadn’t taken the mug and washed it out of spite or annoyance; it had been one of his private kindnesses, one of those secretive, guarded gifts. Inej wondered how many more she’d missed along the way.
Inej crossed her arms. “And I was to get that from a vault?”
Kaz sighed. “No.“ His hand clenched around his cane, fingers flexing. “I’m not entitled to anything from you, for the work you do or for helping you get out of the Menagerie. Nothing here comes with strings.”
Inej realized that was what she’d been waiting for. A demand, a price in return.
Heleen always made the girls go in and beg for their continued spots at the Menagerie. For the protection Heleen provided. If their performance wasn’t satisfactory, Heleen punished them. So Inej learned to tuck herself away. To fold in on herself. To pay for what she took. And, apparently, she’d been waiting for a demand from Kaz, too.
Kaz paused again. “You always sit on the edges, have you noticed? Window seats and shelves, always perched away from the room. Always on the edge. You shouldn’t have to feel that way. Not here.”
Inej looked up at him, “I thought this place was temporary.”
“So did I,” Kaz admitted, “But the Amsterdam apartment isn’t going to fit all six of us.”
Once again, Inej studied him. Kaz was rarely this upfront with his thoughts. But, Inej realized, that was on purpose. He was trying for her, like she’d asked.
“If that’s how you feel,” Inej told him carefully, “I need you to communicate with me. I’m not a mind-reader.”
Kaz nodded. He was staring her dead in the eye, his eyes the colour of coffee. “You deserve to be comfortable here. You deserve to be happy. You deserve…” He trailed off. Somehow she knew what he was going to say and she found herself angry.
“Say it,” she demanded, stepping forward.
Kaz looked down at his hands then back up at her, straightening his posture. He pretended he wasn’t ashamed, that he was merely stating a fact. But Inej could tell he was looking at her cheek, rather than in her eyes. “You deserve better than what I can offer you.”
She held the mug in her hands. The look on his face – the pretend blasé attitude gave her the courage to take another step forward. “Don’t make that choice for me.”
Then, with full eye contact, she took another drink, pressing her mouth to where his was minutes ago. Kaz tracked her movements, something like hope in his expression.
“Get some rest,” she said eventually, handing him the mug back. “I expect you at breakfast.” Kaz didn’t smile but she felt the weight of his look, following her all the way back up the stairs.
“Maybe it’s like a Schuyler lock,” Wylan had his ear pressed to the vault, listening while Kaz fiddled with something Inej couldn’t see. “Multiple combinations that interlock and need to be picked simultaneously.”
“It’s likely,” Kaz allowed, stepping back. He crossed his arms and stared at the lock again, like it would eventually give up under his unrelenting stare.
At the table they’d dragged into the factory floor, Jesper was cleaning his pistols. They were new – the pearl handled ones were left at the safehouse in Canada, with Inej’s knives, and no one was sure if it was safe to retrieve them. The new pistols had deep blue grooves Jesper had used to brag about Wylan’s eyes.
Inej sat across from him, examining the edge of the knife Jesper had given her. Her sharpening stone was in her other hand. Kaz had mocked the knife, but Inej thought it could be redeemed with a little work.
“I wonder if we could magnetize it,” Wylan offered. “Trick the lock pieces into moving.” Kaz nodded but didn’t seem satisfied with the answer.
Jesper examined the barrel of his gun. “We could shoot it,” Jesper offered.
“If you’re in the mood for dodging bullets,” Kaz said.
“They would bounce off the exterior,” Wylan explained kindly, “But thank you, sweetheart.” Jesper winked at him.
Inej shifted, focusing on Kaz and Wylan and the vault directly for the first time since she sat down. “Why don’t you just blow it?” She found herself suggesting, glaring a little at the mechanism.
Wylan looked a little surprised that she, of all people, was suggesting it. But Kaz just smiled. “Patience, Inej.” Inej glared at the vault.
A few hours later, Matthias appeared and sat at the table, arms crossed as he gave advice about the vault’s mechanisms. He told them the weird cult he grew up in “valued security”, which Inej thought was a bit of a minimization. But Matthias knew a fair bit about the way locks were made and demonstrated that knowledge from his seat, leg stretched out in front of him on an extra chair. Nina endured it for the better part of an hour.
“If I hear one more word about locks, I’m going to snap,” she announced. She stood. “I’m going to town, if anyone would like to join me.”
“Thank god,” Jesper said, standing. Inej found herself sliding off her chair too. Jesper and Nina beamed at her and she found herself smiling back.
Inej was aware she’d been avoiding going into town. But she was feeling more confident since the heist. She wanted to increase that feeling. She was feeling brave.
It was a good thing she had been feeling brave, too: she needed it for the drive into town. Jesper took the wheel and he was nowhere nearly as careful as he’d been on the bike. Nina whooped anytime they took a corner, because at least one of their tires lifted off the ground, and he sideswiped at least one stop sign.
But Inej forgot all about Jesper’s driving when they arrived in town, because he turned down a main road that suddenly opened up to the sea. Inej sat up, rolling the window down and looking out to the water. She took a hard, deep breath in, the salt of the sea filling her lungs and her hair escaping out of her braid.
They found a café with a little patio behind it, overlooking the sea. Jesper went inside, gallantly offering to get their food.
Inej and Nina went around to the back, finding the patio mostly empty. It was a weird time, almost exactly between lunch and dinner, so they had their pick of the tables, spread out in the sand. Inej toed off her shoes and they took up a table on the far edge, so they had an unobstructed view of the water.
“It’s beautiful here,” Nina sighed, “That bastard sure knows how to pick a safehouse.”
“Don’t be too hard on him,” Inej chided gently. But, from Nina, calling Kaz a bastard was almost a term of endearment.
Kaz and Nina rarely saw eye to eye. It was worse when they first started, when they seemed to constantly push each others’ buttons for the hell of it. They’d found common ground, though; something to agree on and use as a white flag between them. Inej wondered what it was.
“Only he could find an entire abandoned bunker and call it a safehouse,” Nina said, but her tone did soften. “I keep thinking, all the safehouses he probably has across the continent, we end up at this one. Not that I don’t like the bunker. It’s just… the most unique place I’ve ever hidden out.”
But Inej missed the last part of it, because she was caught on Nina’s observation. Kaz had safehouses all over the continent. They could’ve ended up anywhere in Europe. And she knew the walls made Kaz itch just as much as the rest of them, she knew he had a few places that would fix all six of them, need be… But they ended up in Croatia.
She turned it over in her mind. He’d never mentioned Croatia to her as a particularly important or powerful safehouse. It wasn’t even one she knew about. And it hadn’t been set up for them, lacking anything beyond the most basic of necessities, not like the half-dozen well-stocked places she knew about across Europe. But Kaz had chosen Croatia and for a reason.
She was called from her train of thought by Nina, who was saying, “I trust your judgement, Inej. As long as you’re happy.”
Inej smiled a little ruefully at Nina. Happiness was… complicated for Inej. She used to think the only place that would make her happy again was back with her parents. But everything was coloured with Inej’s newfound knowledge of the world.
Heisting was – well, Kaz was in it for the money, and so was Jesper. And so was she, she supposed. But it felt – active. She was doing something.
All her money went to organizations that helped people like her. Organizations she couldn’t work for herself because it was all a little too close to home.
Happiness was hard to catch. Inej was slowly relearning the shape of it. “I’m working on it,” Inej said carefully.
“Good,” Nina said, “You deserve it, Inej.”
Jesper appeared at that moment, holding a trio of bowls. He set them on the table, asking, “What does Inej deserve?”
“All the good things in the world,” Nina replied. Jesper nodded.
“And more,” he said, winking at her. Inej felt warmth flood her chest.
Jesper double-backed for their drinks and Nina said, “We appreciate you. Make sure he does, too.”
Inej turned this new information over in her head. Kaz settled them in Croatia for a reason. He had a surprise for her, waiting in the vault. Inej still didn’t know Heleen’s motives.
Part of Inej wanted to go back inside and demand answers. But the rest of her was content to sit on the roof and take in the sunset and turn these facts over in her mind. She was content to let Kaz’s plan play out as he meant it to. Partly because she trusted Kaz. Partly because watching Kaz’s plans play out was a little like watching a painting take shape, broad strokes of colour that only made sense by the very end.
The city was off in the distance and behind it, the sea. Inej could smell it from her perch. She shut her eyes and inhaled, keeping an idle ear on the boys through the open window behind her. They were still discussing the vault, arguing about the type of mechanism it held. Kaz was explaining a job he’d gone on with Inej and Jesper ten months before. It was one of their more… improvised plans. At one point, the three of them had ended up stuck in a closet. It had quickly descended into arguing.
“When I got into the heist business,” Jesper had whispered peevishly in the darkness, “I imagined it a bit more glamourous.” The closet was too short for him. He was crouched awkwardly, knees akimbo.
“Is travelling with two Pollocks not glamorous enough for you?” Kaz had asked, on Inej’s other side. He was pressing himself up against the wall, as far from them as he could be.
Travelling had been a term used loosely. They were still stuck in the closet.
“I’m not a fan of Pollock, actually,” Inej told him.
Kaz almost smiled but Inej only knew it from his voice. It was too dark to see him clearly. “Don’t mind the artists, Inej. Mind the fifty million we’re making off this job.”
“I’m going to mind both.”
“Principles seem to make things harder,” Jesper had said, grinning slowly. His teeth were white in the dark. “Good thing I don’t have any.”
“You’re not unprincipled, Jesper. You’re shameless,” Kaz had said. Inej laughed.
“You have my shamelessness to thank for a lot of things, Kaz.”
“Like the master you lifted in London?” Kaz asked.
Inej laughed again. They hadn’t told Kaz about the doorman, but it didn’t surprise her in the slightest that he knew anyways. Jesper’s expression only made her laugh harder, half annoyed and half surprised, while Kaz shifted his leg again, a hint of a grin on his face.
That wasn’t the story Kaz was relaying – something about how the vault had a second, secret lock, that could only be opened once it was discovered. But that – being stuck in a closet with those two idiots – was what she remembered.
So entrenched in her memory, it took a moment for her to realize she wasn’t hearing their conversation anymore. She was hearing their cheering.
Quickly, she returned to the section of glass ceiling she’d climbed through, leaning over it. Her braid slipped off her shoulder and hung towards the floor.
Kaz looked up at her immediately. He was grinning so widely it was almost blinding.
Inej swung down out of the windowpane, landing on the platform. She leaned eagerly around it, the railing pressing into her still-bruised stomach. She didn’t care. She wanted to see it.
“Wait - there’s something in there,” Wylan exclaimed. Kaz already retrieving it, sliding the painting out and holding it up. It was a bright red swirl of flowers, not a style or artist she recognized. But Kaz was grinning like he was holding an original Van Gogh.
“Did you know it wasn’t empty?” Matthias asked.
Of course he did, Inej thought. He’d known all along. She found herself smirking, elbows leaned on the railing, trying to hold back a laugh. Kaz looked up and returned the smirk. His hands, curled around the painting’s frame, were bare.
Inej was polishing her knives again, checking them over after she’d taken them out to see how they flew. Jesper’s had no balance to speak of, but Kaz’s wasn’t too bad. She was able to embed it into a nearby tree by at least a couple inches.
From the table on the factory floor, was only a few feet from Kaz, where he’d set up a pair of easels and was carefully painting. The painting on the left, the one from the vault, was a swirl of red flowers, set in a gold frame. The painting on the right, the one he was working on, was a bare canvas covered in a half-finished swirl of red flowers.
She’d seen him paint before. It was one of his hidden talents, to mimic any painting he looked at. Half the paintings they’d handed over to clients were forgeries, but all the ones in the apartment in Amsterdam were real. Sometimes they’d steal a painting without a commission to do so and once word got out about its thievery, they’d offer to four different bidders and sell to all of them. There was at least five copies of Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Gailee kicking around, courtesy of Kaz’s talent. Sometimes, they replaced the paintings they stole with fakes; a handful of the ones they’d replaced hadn’t even been noticed by their museums or private owners.
Inej asked him once if he painted anything else, or even sketched for fun. Kaz had just scoffed. It was long enough ago that she’d taken it at face value. But Inej knew better now.
“Anyone would think you have a plan for that painting,” Inej said lightly, eyes on her blade. She couldn’t help looking up though, not when she knew he was grinning like that.
“Waste not, Inej,” Kaz replied, as if this wasn’t part of a sixty-step plan. As if he’d been so shocked to find a painting inside the vault.
He had a bit of red paint on his shirt collar. His hands were paint-smeared and beautifully bare.
Inej put her knife down and stood, walking towards him. She watched Kaz watch her, pausing to look at the painting.
It was incredible. He had a real talent and briefly, she wondered if that was what got him in the business in the first place. But she knew about his brother, too, vague references Kaz had made when they were alone. Jordie was a beautiful painter, he’d said. At the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, he’d told her it was the first art museum he’d gone to, that Jordie had brought him their first day in the city. Maybe Jordie was the reason Kaz had gotten into heists in the first place.
“Do you ever sketch?” Inej asked now, glancing up at him.
“I prefer to apply my energy to actual jobs,” Kaz said. But something about his expression gave her pause. That wasn’t a no.
“Shame,” she said, turning back to the painting, “I was just thinking my walls looked a little bare.”
The nightmares had started to fade. Inej slept three or four nights all the way through, without needed to wake and wander as she had the last few weeks. So when the next came, it hit her like a sucker punch, knocking her out of bed and to the hall, immediately, so desperate she was to get away from her bed and the images that lurked in it.
Her skin prickled and crawled even more when she saw the lights on, when she saw Kaz standing in that main hall like he’d never left. Inej went down the stairs, intending to go for a walk or a run or a climb, whatever sang to her first once out the door – but Kaz called her name.
“I think I’m done,” Kaz said. Inej paused – reluctant to talk, wanting nothing more than to go anywhere, anywhere that wasn’t in front of Kaz where, anytime she blinked, she saw a bloodied and broken version of him. She’d blink and the illusion would leave, only to return the second she looked again. She saw Kaz, whole and gloveless, holding a paintbrush, and then Kaz, bruised and beaten and bleeding out in front of her, telling her to run, Inej! –
The halls of the motel had been a maze. They’d been desperately trying to find their way out, but each exit seemed to be blocked. Each hall ended in a man with a gun. The fluorescent lights had been buzzing like flies, loud and skin-crawling, and Heleen’s men had loomed out of the dark, two great hulking shadows.
Kaz had seen the feather pin on their lapels first. He’d thrown himself against the nearest one and shouted at Inej to run. She’d never heard him so scared. That cry – panicked and furious, protective and angry – wasn’t going to leave her head anytime soon.
“Inej,” his voice drew her back, a balloon on a string. She blinked and saw him whole again, looking younger than he’d ever seemed. Almost his age.
“It’s finished,” he said. Nina’s words tangled up in her head. Make sure he does, too. She thought of the mug in the Amsterdam apartment, fished from her hands and cleaned and put away, of kindnesses so secret she missed them.
Inej took a step towards the painting, examining the forgery. It was incredible. It was better than incredible – it was its twin. An expert couldn’t tell the difference.
“I know why they found us,” Kaz said. “Not just how. Why.” Startled, Inej looked over at him and he began: “She wanted to hire us – or maybe use you. I’m not sure. But she wanted your talent, in order to steal this. Its market value is low, but it has sentimental value to her, and it was kept under a strong lock and key. I want to sell it to her.”
“Sell her the forgery?” Inej could see it now. Rob her blind and wait for her outraged outburst, when she eventually noticed something, some tiny detail Kaz missed – or made on purpose. A smile crept over her face.
“As the first step,” Kaz said. Inej looked over at him. “Matthias can trace the bank account of anyone that deposits into my accounts. He can use that to find records, to link other accounts. And bank heists… they’re a lot easier than art ones. So much money is digital these days. We could do it from here.”
They could destroy Heleen. They could take everything she ever was and burn it to the ground. They could close the Menagerie for good.
She asked quietly, “Is this my surprise?”
Kaz was just as quiet. “Do you like it?”
Inej reached out very slowly. Carefully, she threaded her fingers into his own. She watched their hands, felt how cold Kaz’s was. Felt his pulse jump against hers. But he didn’t pull away.
“You don’t owe me anything,” Kaz said.
“I know,” Inej said. “I want to rob her blind. And I want to hold your hand.”
Slowly, Kaz began to smile. Not the blinding grin when he broke into the vault. It was the boyish look, two parts shy and one part pure happiness. Inej thought she might move mountains for that smile.
She wasn’t sure how long they stood there, smiling at each other, but it was long enough to feel tiredness begin to pull at her eyes. She studied the dark bags under Kaz’s eyes and remembered how often she’d come out to find him standing out there in the middle of the night. Maybe it wasn’t all about nightmares. Maybe he’d been trying to solve this, too. For her.
“Why don’t you sleep?” She asked. Her voice was barely above a whisper, and she nearly regretted the question as she watched Kaz’s smile soften and grow small. Kaz looked back at the painting. But he didn’t pull away.
“Sometimes when I lie down to sleep,” Kaz started, “My mind races with a hundred different ideas. A hundred possible outcomes. Sometimes I fall asleep but wake up to it instead.” He sighed, “If I write it out – put it in my notebook – it clears my head. At least for a while.”
Inej looked up at him, “And lately?”
“Lately it hasn’t worked,” Kaz confirmed. Inej tugged on his hand a little, looking at the painting.
“Do you want to try it on me?” When Kaz looked questioningly at her, she continued. “Tell me what you’re thinking. Everything that makes your head spin. Maybe it’ll help.”
Kaz considered her for a moment and then nodded, somewhat stiffly.
They found themselves in the den. The den, which was becoming less stifling and cozier every day. Where Inej and Kaz had taken to sitting in the middle of, rather than on the edges.
They sat on opposite ends of the largest couch, a blanket spread between them. Inej leaned against the back of the couch, one knee drawn up to her chest and the other leg extended in front of her, her foot settled against Kaz’s calf. She watched him relax slowly, easing back into the couch cushions.
Slowly, Kaz let out a breath. “Every time I close my eyes,” Kaz started, staring at his knees, “I see the motel again. And I see you fall.”
Jesper had once said Kaz and Inej were “made of the same stuff”. It had only been a month into working with them. Inej had still been skittish, in the habit of keeping pieces of furniture between her and any man who came near, Kaz and Jesper included. She’d spent the first few weeks navigating the Amsterdam apartment like a minefield, spending most of her time in her bedroom with three locks installed (Kaz hadn’t said anything as she’d installed them, only walked by and suggested a door chain, too).
Jesper had made the pronouncement at dinner, takeout piled on the island between Inej and the boys. She’d looked at Kaz, who she’d seen break a man’s wrist by stomping on it just that day, and wondered how they could ever be mistaken for similar.
But Inej understood what Jesper saw, now. She even agreed that they were made of that “same stuff” – they just wore it differently.
The next time Inej had a nightmare, she knocked on Kaz’s door. She sat on the floor of his room while he sat across from her, their feet nearly touching between them, and she told him about Heleen and the threats she’d made. What she’d promised if she ever escaped. Kaz listened carefully. His fists tightened over his knees, but he never looked at her with pity. It was just what she needed.
Kaz found her the other nights, when his mind was racing and he couldn’t settle down. Inej listened patiently while he explained the tangled threads in his mind, while he slowly made sense of them and then sorted them away.
Relapse was still a hard word to hear. But at least it grew easier to say.
Inej talked to Nina, curled up together in front of a comedy. Inej asked Jesper tentative questions, careful of his own boundaries. Wylan showed her how to improvise a smoke bomb and Matthias showed her how to wipe a digital fingerprint. All that knowledge made her stand a little taller; made her breathe a little easier. And sometimes, it didn’t. Sometimes nothing worked at all, besides riding out the storm.
It was a little too easy to sell Heleen the painting. The thought roiled in her stomach, but Kaz was confident. He’d gone over every outcome and weighed every possibility and then he’d loaded the dice in their favour.
A trusted middleman handled the exchange – which was actually someone posing as a trusted middleman – and the money was deposited into their account within the hour. Then Matthias was relaying messages to Wylan, both of them parked at two different computers and typing faster than Inej ever could.
The wait became too much. Inej climbed out onto the roof, needing to get higher, closer to the sky.
The painting contained only one detail that would give them away. Disguised as the original artist’s looping signature were the names Ghafa & Brekker. Kaz had asked to include both their names, because he wanted Heleen to know that anything to do with Inej would mean he’d be involved too. Heleen would answer to them both.
There was a breeze up on the roof. It smelled like the ocean, clean and salty. Inej leaned back on her hands and took a deep breath in. If all went to plan, it was only a matter of hours before the money was moved into twelve different accounts, and then moved from there into several charities across the world – all of which were devoted to rescuing the victims of sex trafficking.
The door creaked below her, the dim outside bulb blinking awake. Kaz stepped out and stood outside the door, against the wall. He looked off in the distance, out to Pula.
Inej stayed on the roof for a while, following his gaze out to Pula. The city was still awake, twinkling lights dotting throughout. She wondered what the beach looked like just then; if it was lit up too, or the ocean was the brightest thing, glowing in the dark.
If all went well tonight, Heleen’s career would be ruined. But what about the others? The men who worked for her as security, turning the other way whenever one of the girls attempted a plea? What about the places the other girls whispered about, places they’d come from or were being sent to – what about the Sweet Shop and the House of the White Rose? Who would make them pay?
Inej had two knives at her hips. She walked rooftops like they were nothing worse than cobbled streets and she so angry – she knew where to put it. But she would need money. She would need time.
Inej slipped down beside him when she was ready, eyes on the burning stars. There was a pleasant breeze blowing through her and the light outside the bunker was old and had gone orange years ago. It threw warmth into Kaz’s pale skin, highlighted the way his mouth was set up ever so slightly. The bags under his eyes seemed lighter. His shoulders were loose. Inej couldn’t think of a time she’d seen him so relaxed.
“Lately, I’ve been dreaming of the motel,” Inej told him quietly, looking off into the city. “Who gets shot keeps changing. Last night it was you.”
Kaz was watching her closely. With a wry twist to his mouth, “I’ve survived much worse, if that helps.”
She huffed a laugh despite herself. Kaz bumped his knee against hers, both looking back out to the stars. They hadn’t gotten past handholding yet, but Inej wasn’t worried. Maybe they had their own things to work out; their own relapses to deal with. But they were starting on even ground, at least.
“More seriously,” Kaz said, looking at her. His voice was a little more serious than before. “It would take more than a bullet to stop me from reaching you, Inej. And I know from experience that I wouldn’t be the one they would need to worry about.”
He was right. She would tear anyone apart who dared. For some reason, hearing it out loud – something settled in her.
“Now that Heleen is taken care of – there’s a job,” Kaz said in his gravelly voice, “In Belarus. A Rembrandt whose owner has bragged is the most protected painting in the world. He also has an affinity for skylights.”
Inej looked at him. “I thought you’d want us to lay low again. In case Heleen tries to come after us.”
Kaz’s lips quirked, looking at her through his eyelashes – and had they always been so thick? “With what resources?”