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The stench of cigars wafted off of Per Haskell as if he’d bathed in a pool of concentrated tobacco for a year. He always smelled that way but when he summoned someone to his barely used office, the enclosed area amplified the scent even more.

Kaz automatically began puffing air in and out from his mouth the moment he stepped inside the dimly lit room. His sweaty palms stuck to the inner lining of his thin leather gloves.

The old man sludged in his overtly tall ember-coloured chair, the end curling like a leaf above him. Kaz has assumed it was an intimidation tactic– though he was doubtful of its effectiveness. A lion’s claws are not menacing if the lion stumbles over them at each step.

“Brekker,” Haskell said through a wheezy, mucus-coated throat. “Come on in, boy.”

Kaz bit his tongue as he sat down. He hated when Haskell called him boy, which he only kept as the name for Kaz, as if to remind him of his place. He barely spoke to the man, but somehow the name stuck. I was more man at age eleven than you have ever been, you withered scarecrow of a man.

“You’ve been here for a while now,” he started, grunting as he adjusted himself in his chair to clasp his hands together on the desk between them.

“Yes sir.”

“Probably not that nice scraping shit off the ground and scrubbin’ pots, huh?” he grinned, one blackened tooth poking out from under his lips.

Kaz licked his teeth, staring at the pomegranate-sized mole on the man’s chin. “No, sir.”

“Some of the boys have told me you have a knack for numbers and cards.”

He nodded, feeling his heart begin to steadily increase in pace. This is it.

Haskell thrummed his thick fingers on the desk, keeping Kaz’s gaze with watery blue eyes. “Well, one of our dealers was nicked the other night. Poor bastard won’t be movin’ for more than a year apparently.”

Nicked was perhaps an understatement, at least to Kaz.

He remembered the loud crunch of Harry’s knee as he kicked into the back of it. Even in the midnight light he could see as the bone protruded out the front like a broken branch caught in a piece of cloth. When the blonde-haired boy had toppled onto his side, eyes shut, wails loud but not unusual in the narrow allies of the Barrel, Kaz had twisted his trembling hand till he heard a crack. Just for assurance he also broke two of his long fingers.

The dealer’s screams rang in Kaz’s ears all the way to the ditch he called a bed.

He dug his leather-cladded nails into his palm. “Rotty mentioned it to me.”

Haskell narrowed his eyes and for a split second Kaz wondered if he knew, but then it vanished into the lazy look that always paints his wrinkled face. “How’d you like to officially join the Dregs?”

Four months of slaving away in the basements and bathrooms of the Slat. His fingers had gone raw and red from the hours spent drowned in murky, barely soaped water. Finally.

Kaz accidentally inhaled through his nose in his excitement, suppressing his coughs with a thick swallow, eyes suddenly flooded with water. “I-I’d be honoured, sir.”

Haskell, mistaking the glisten for tears let out a chuckle. “No need to shed tears, boy.”

Kaz, too busy recovering from the stench let out a weak laugh, blinking away the sting as he watched Haskell grab two cups from behind and a pitcher of ale. “Here,” he pushed a half-filled glass of murky brown liquid to Kaz that matched his own, “drink up, boy.” They clinked their drinks.

It tasted like oil and stale coffee, maybe even a sprinkle of some Ravkan poison for all Kaz knew. He downed it in one chug, barely able to hide his wince.

“That’s a man!” Haskell snickered, filling it up as soon as Kaz set it on the desk. They downed three whole glasses each before the old man slammed his hand on the desk, howling. “How old are you, boy?”

Kaz wiped his mouth. He began seeing two of the ugly tall chair. “Fourteen, sir.”

“I’m impressed, boy.” Haskell held out his hand. “Impress me some more and I can see you going places, even becoming me one day.”

Saints forsake that. Kaz grinded his teeth at the pale hand extended towards him. Shudders rushed through him from his toes to the ends of his hair when he clasped it. Even underneath his leather the unbearable heat of skin made bile rise up his long throat. He swallowed. “Hopefully with a better state of my liver, though.”

Haskell’s wheezing and piercing laughter was barely audible as Kaz’s heart beat louder an louder than the bells of Ketterdam, his stomach still churning with sickness but his blood hot with adrenaline. I’m going places.

-

After a few minutes of searing pain, his arm had gone numb under the needle. His legs twitched underneath him every time the woman’s fingers brushed over his bare and raw flesh. He hadn’t asked her - Mayra - to wear the gloves; more, he handed her a pair as soon as he sat down in one of parlour’s many chairs.

“Either you put those on, or I make a pair of gloves on your hand with that hot wax,” he’d responded to her arched brow, pointing at the stove behind her.

His dark eyes watched as she slipped them on, the scowl stuck on her face like a tattoo the entire time. How ironic, Kaz wanted to say, though he thought to remain mum rather than piss off the person stabbing his skin with a thin needle thousands of times.

Every Dreg bore a tattoo on themselves; a crow perched on a tall, wide-mouth glass, sipping on some liquid. Kaz always assumed it was meant to be the blood of their enemies-a bit overkill in his opinion. Apparently it was allowed anywhere on the body, but Kaz thought it would look ridiculous on his chest as if he was some broody theatre actor, so arm it was.

He oddly thought of Jordie’s soft face. The amber brown of his eyes would be so wide the way they always got when they were worried if he saw the state of Kaz’s arm at that moment. It was a pulpy red from the oozing blood and blueish green from the fresh ink. The still scowling Mayra informed him the colour would evolve as the skin healed to a dark black like the ink he used when helping Haskell’s incompetent bookkeeper.

To be honest he couldn’t care less. The tattoo was meant to show solidarity and loyalty to the group, but Kaz wondered how an inked wound would keep the men and women who ran the Crow Club from being sellouts. Loyalty was earned through respect and fear, not sigils and tattoos.

It took a surprising number of hours. And quite a bit of whisky. The pain was sometimes a sting, then a hot iron rod to the arm. By the end his whole torso was thrumming, and he reminded himself to thank Spetch when he got back to the Slat for the whisky in a flask suggestion.

-

It took a whole week to fully heal, the fresh tattoo covered by a thin layer of paraffin wax to protect it from Ketterdam’s dirty air. To his dismay, Kaz had to admit as he poured a mixture of hot water and vodka onto the wax that Mayra had done a good job. For all her huffing and grumbling about the gloves she’d inked his arm with the exact same design as every other Dreg, right to the thin wisps of the crow’s feathers.

In the mirror of the dimly lit bathroom of his small room, Kaz traced the glass with his bare fingers, vaguely remembering a similar-looking goblet in Jakob Hertzoon’s glimmering mansion. His jaw clenched as he stared at himself in the mirror.

One day he’d crush up a similar glass and make Pekka Rollins swallow it whole. He’d make him wish he was dead, make him beg to be washed up in Reaper’s Barge. He’d make him feel the way Kaz felt as he had watched Jordie become a shell of a man in those last few days, barely caring to move as death’s doors opened for him. He’d make him feel that pain, that humiliation.

One day he’d make Pekka Rollins fall to his knees.

“One day,” Kaz murmured to himself in the crooked glass, buttoning up a fresh shirt.

Till then, he had some Pigeons to swindle, some men to put the fear of the so-called Saints in.

He had a kingdom to be build.

🂦

It had been a normal day.

The soot and smog of the Barrel made the sun shine with a hue that vaguely matched the colour of an aged and watery yolk. Kaz’s fingers thrummed over the boney handle of his cane as he walked through the wet streets.

The rain had been heavy the day before, the downpour of water washing away the pungent stenches of the streets for one glorious day. Kaz inhaled deeply, the thick scent of gravel and rock pleasant and clean to his senses.

He’d finished a hearty chunk of the bookkeeping work for the month the night before, leaving his fingers slightly aching from the relentless amount of writing. He was only four months into his position as bookkeeper, eight months into his time as a Dreg, and Haskell figured that they might as well stop with the façade of anyone else handling the books at this point. You’re as ruthless with that mind as you are with those hands, boy, he’d said, slapping Kaz’s back as he showed him around the small office that was now all for him. Kaz’s body hadn’t stopped trembling even after the shudders from Haskell’s hand on him had subsided.

Bookkeeping was a mindless and easy task. Instead of the numbers on a card, the numbers were on long sheets of onion paper, so it didn’t take much of an effort for Kaz to master the skills required. The only problem was the actual writing. His mind was a far more secured lock for all that information than thick leather books. It wouldn’t take much for even a half-witted Razorgull to snatch the records up with a simple distraction and nimble fingers.

He’d told Haskell those exact words, only earning him a showcase of those ugly beads that Haskell called teeth as he snarled. “This isn’t your gang, boy! Those numbers aren’t for you and your mind, they are for me.”

He’d leaned forward on his desk, face a tomato red. “Don’t forget who you work for, boy. I can have you tossed out onto the streets just as easily as I took you off of them.”

His effort to shout with a booming voice had been quite the failure with that wheezing cough of his. It was getting worse and worse as the months went by. Kaz wondered sometimes that if he wrung Haskell’s heart it would pour out more tobacco and alcohol than blood at this point. Maybe one day he’d get the chance.

Still, he had nodded with a slightly lowered head. “I understand. It won’t happen again.”

He needed to be on the old man’s good side for when he finally gave the eventual plans he’d entailed for the goldmine that was Fifth Harbour. If he wounded Haskell’s ego now, it wouldn’t matter how fiscally sound the proposition, that idiot would let the words go right through his head, from one ear in and out the other.

So, he walked through the streets, wondering how many more points he’d need to convince Haskell to invest in the Harbour. His still freshman position in the gang seemed to make the old man think his ideas were useless, as if Kaz hadn’t improved the Dregs more in his eight months than anyone in the gang had in decades. It wouldn’t matter the irrationality of his argument; he’d still say it.

Perhaps he’d get that irritatingly chatty and tall Zemeni boy, Jesper Fahey, to help him with his proposal. He’d managed to charm Haskell and the Dregs in less time than it took Kaz to knock a man out.

Kaz could see through the shiny facade, see the loneliness and pain that hid behind his aggravating smiles and quips, just like every other person that had the sorry fate to end up in this part of Ketterdam.

“I may be a sharpshooter, but one rarely needs to take their gun out of its holster when they have a face like this,” Jesper said to Kaz the other night at a table, teeth glinting, face flushed from a recent win. Saints, Kaz almost regretted saving the gambler all those weeks ago.

He was so caught up in his irritation for Fahey that when he saw the tin-eared, stiffly waddling windup dog being sold in a wooden cart, it felt like he’d been hit with a mallet right in the chest.

Not because of the bloody toy, he’d seen that stupid bronze dog a countless number of times since joining the Dregs, it was because it gave him the sudden remembrance of Jordie’s death.

Not because it was his anniversary date, but because Kaz actually couldn’t recall the date of his death.

The sudden realization made his chest tighten as he stared at the line of toys, remembering the smooth texture of it under the hands of an innocent boy, a boy who Kaz had stomped like a beetle under his heel. Was it the month before or this month? It was hot, he told himself, frozen in the middle of the street, it was hot, I remember it being extremely hot. So, it must be around these months then. It had to be.

But it’s always hot in Ketterdam, he reminded himself. He had been twelve, so he remembered that clearly at the very least. He’d been twelve, Jordie fifteen. So, it’s been three years.

One leather-cladded and trembling hand ran through his hair. How could he not remember the date? Because you killed the boy that would have mourned that day.

A shoulder shoved past him and suddenly Kaz remembered that he was standing like a fool in the middle of the streets. Vendors and a passerby gaped at him as he blinked the flush of water that dared to flood his eyes away.

“You keep your mouth open that wide and who knows what people will throw into it,” he barked at the men, storming down the street.

-

Kaz couldn’t quite recall when he’d ended up back in Mayra’s chair, perhaps after that fifth vodka shot that Jesper had edged him to drink. But when he felt the piercing pain of her needle stab into his flesh, only a few inches above his other tattoo, he’d jolted in his seat.

“Calm down, Brekker,” she’d muttered, holding up her gloved hands when he’d shoved her hands away and slid off the chair.

He stared at her, red curls framing her pale and freckled face, and then his arm, where the beginnings of a tattoo was bleeding fresh blood. It was just a sliver of ink, almost like a crescent moon. The skin singed. “What is this?” he snapped, glaring at her as he palmed his arm. At least there was the relief when he realized he was still wearing his gloves, the leather a comfort on his pulsating skin.

Her soft jaw clenched as she watched him incredulously. “Did you take a fall on your head, Brekker? Maybe you need a better cane,” she snapped, pointing one sharp finger behind him at the cane that lay against the wall. “You’re the one who shoved a stack of Kruges into my lap this late at night and demanded I give you a tatoeeëren.”

“Ta-tow-what?”

She tisked. “You Kerch people-I meant a tattoo.”

Either he or she had lost their mind. “What tattoo?”

Green eyes rolled dramatically. “An ‘R,’ you idiot. Do I need to draw that out for you to remember what that is? A let-ter.”

“Shut up,” he hissed, running a hand over the crimson skin. His heart was pounding, and not just because of the unfortunate amount of alcohol he’d consumed only a few bells ago.

An ‘R’. He stared at the spot, remembering two days ago as he stared just like this at those toys. Why hadn’t he decided on a ‘J’? It’s not like he was very sentimental with his last name. But it wasn’t just his last name, he remembered. It was Jordie’s as well. It was the name that bonded him to his brother, what he’d call Kaz when he threw a tantrum from a throbbing hand in the field of their farm.

“Don’t be an angry grump, Little Rietveld,” he’d laughed, ruffling Kaz’s short brown hair that Kaz had cut to match his brother’s. He liked it when Jordie called him that, like he was a grown man-well, without the ‘little,’ perhaps. It made him think he’d end up growing up to be like his brother, like his father, a Rietveld man.

He’d never be that man, Kaz understood. If he’d been the man Jordie had wanted him to be he’d be starving in the allies of the Barrel, or already floating in the Reaper’s Barge just like his brother. But Kaz Rietveld would have remembered his brother’s death, he reminded himself.

When the tattoo was done and Kaz’s mind had cleared from the fog of alcohol, instead dizzy with the pain of the wound, he still couldn’t quite add up why’d he’d gone through with it.

He didn’t even after a week when he melted the paraffin off and traced the shiny ‘R’ on his bicep, the letter almost hovering over the Dreg’s cup on his forearm. His reflection showed a pale man, eyes wide and uncertain for once.

Maybe Kaz Rietveld would have remembered his brother’s anniversary, but he didn’t know or care for that boy anymore. Kaz Brekker had no family, his mother was Ketterdam, father, profit. Kaz Brekker never mourned, a Dreg never mourned. No mourners, no funerals.

But as Kaz laid on his back, staring at the shadows the flickering flame made across his ceiling, he still traced the letter on his arm. He didn’t want to admit it, perhaps never would consciously, but the smooth ink felt comforting, almost like his leather gloves.

Kaz Rietveld had died a long time ago. He’d been chipped away with every cold and starving night, with the helpless pleas of Jordie. There was no reason or time to mourn him, there still wasn’t. And yet with sleepless eyes and a weight he couldn’t quite identify sitting right on his chest, he silently mourned him anyways.

 

🂦

 

He’d seen the Menagerie tattoo countless times. The young girls and women bore them right on their wrist, veins hidden by a long and furled peacock that inked their skin. The sight made him nauseous, even though he scolded himself every time he did. It was pathetic that the sight of ink could make him Kaz Brekker, sick to the stomach. Perhaps he just never could stomach the inhumanity of it, as if it was a price tag on those girls.

When he’d seen it on Inej’s wrist the first time as he walked them toward the Crow Club and Per Haskell’s office, he’d wondered how young she’d been when they’d made her get it. His stomach churned at the wisps of the feather that peaked out from underneath the clothes he’d given her. She’d tossed the bells and silks into a bag she carried on her shoulder, the heat in her eyes as she shoved them into the satchel making him reckon that she’d stay up the entire night and watch them all burn till they were nothing but embers and powdery ash.

When he’d questioned her how long she’d been at the Menagerie, the silence of her feet beside him too deafening, she’d said a year. Kaz couldn’t tell why it relieved him that it was only a year, as if three-hundred-and-sixty-five days in that prison couldn’t be a torturous hell for her or any other human being.

She looked around his age, seventeen, give or take a few months perhaps. “How old are you?” he asked, tilting his chin down to glance at her. He hadn’t realized until that moment how short she was. Even with hollow eyes the first time he’d seen her three days ago, dressed in fake silks, she’d stood taller than any person he’d ever seen.

The corner of her lips trembled, a jumble between a smile to laugh and a frown to cry. One long finger tucked her loose, long, onyx hair behind her ear.

“Yesterday was my sixteenth birthday,” she said, a watery laugh escaping her throat.

They’d walked in silence the rest of the way to the Slat.

Kaz’s ear never caught the sound of her feet as they walked up the steps to her new home.

-

It had only been two weeks since Inej had first stepped in the Slat. Two weeks of Kaz consistently trying to puzzle how he knew when she was near when he couldn’t even hear the slightest of a sound from her bloody feet. He’d had a lot more whisky than usual in those two weeks.

Not to his surprise, Kaz noticed how quickly Inej had attached herself to Jesper, walking beside him through the streets, clasping onto his forearm instinctively when someone kept their eyes on her for too long. The sharpshooter had always been an open person, but Kaz realized that in the last two weeks he had become almost nurturing. He never saw pity in his Zemeni grey eyes, more empathy. From the minute she’d walked down the steps of her room the morning after arriving at the Slat he’d siphoned himself to her side like a mother hen.

“Hello, darling,” he’d murmured, holding out a hand for her to clasp. Kaz had watched from the railings by his room as she glanced between the man’s hand and eyes, shoulders tense as she reached out her own hand to shake. Jesper’s face had blossomed into a soft grin, eyes rounder than usual as he walked her around the Slat, keeping a respectable distance between them.

He’d been so considerate then and all the thirteen days afterwards, that when in the throes of a late-night poker game, eyes blown wide from rum and vodka, he asked her such a thick-skinned question, Kaz couldn’t help the way his jaw clenched in some untamed anger.

“Say, Inej,” he sang, making Inej grin as she stared at her own cards. She’d won twice now, the sly comments thrown at the sharpshooter making his cheeks red with annoyance. Kaz didn’t have an excuse for being at the table, but no one dared to question him anyways as he watched through hooded eyes. “Since you’ve become a card-savant, a sure sign of a Dreg, when are you gonna get that ugly crow and cup tattoo, huh?”

Inej freezed, cards curled tightly close to herself faltering. A hush moved like a wave through the table as Jesper glanced at her through his card, suddenly stiffening in realization within seconds.

Deep brown eyes met Kaz’s and his throat tightened. He’d chalk his reaction to the intensity in her gaze, but really…he couldn’t figure why the look in her round eyes had knocked the air right out of him. It took him an embarrassing number of minutes to realize what she was conveying through her shiny orbs, understanding surfacing when he glanced at the peacock tattoo peeking from underneath her sleeve. Don’t make me mark myself again.

Kaz blinked away, throat clearing. “The tattoo isn’t a necessity anymore, Jesper,” he barked out, the venom on his words making Jesper flinch.

Jesper set his cards down trying to catch Inej’s lowered eyes before his pale face went towards Kaz’s. “O-of course, I just-” he glanced at Inej again, frown deepening, “I-I wasn’t thinking.”

At her silence, he ran a hand through his curly hair. “Inej, I-”

“It’s okay, it. It’s okay,” she finally spoke, face and voice of steel even as her eyes glistened. A tense smile curved her lips as she looked at the Zemeni man, shaking her head. “I know you didn’t...” her voice caught in her throat, and she cleared it, setting her cards down. Her braided hair was swept behind her shoulder as she got up. Kaz didn’t miss the slight tremble in the fingers she splayed across the table. “I think I should go to bed.”

Jesper shot out of his seat as she rushed away, her feet still silent as ever. “Inej-”

He turned back around to Kaz helplessly.

Kaz’s lips straightened into a thin line, upper lip curling. “Next time, count your bloody shots before you down them, Fahey,” he hissed, angry at the sharpshooter and himself, for the way his own heart was suddenly roaring; an untamed monster attempting to claw itself right out of his chest.

It took him walking into his room and laying down for the beat to ebb into a gentle thrum, Kaz staring at the beams as he thought of the ugly feather tattoo that painted her brown skin.

-

He woke up with a start.

Being a light sleeper was a blessing for a man who was constantly thwarting off assassination attempts, but even a bear would probably hear the loud clutter of books thumping onto his floor. His eye opened only after he slid the gun he hid underneath his pillow out, curling a finger around the handle as he shot up. “Who the fuck is-” the words were swallowed by his tongue as he saw her lithe silhouette. Three months of her being a Dreg now and somehow he knew her shape before his eyes did.

Inej stumbled onto the ground from the sill, tumbling onto her knees somehow gracefully, before she slumped onto his floorboards, arms and legs splayed out like a star, still like a rock suddenly.

He could barely see her face from the two dimly lit candles he kept on his desk, but the stench of vodka was pungent even from his bed.

“Inej,” he said more than asked, pulling his sheets off. For some reason he looked down to check to see if he was wearing pants. You always wear pants, you’re not a fucking toddler.

Finding his cane in the shallow light he lifted himself up, grunting at the line of pain that shot through his leg. Saints damn the rain; it always made his knee worse.

“Inej,” he clipped, a bit sharper now. Once or twice, she’d sit on his sill and he’d silently go back to writing something down, but barging into his room in the thick of the night? His jaw clenched.

Kaz let out a loud huff, pushing the candle to the edge of the table so he could see her-also so he didn’t fall face fucking first onto her. “Inej-”

He froze, the auburn flames revealed a trail of red streams that rolled down her right forearm right below her bunched up blue sleeve, pooling in her slightly curled palms like a puddle of wine. Instantly he dropped onto his knees, ignoring the shooting pains the action caused, placing the candle between them to get a better look. “Fucking hell,” he muttered, eyes wide.

The surface of her skin that had been inked with the peacock tattoo now laid opened and marred, ugly and clumsy lines oozed out fresh blood that stained a lazily wrapped bandage covering her arm. It was soaking wet, not a speck of the cloth white and the back of her sodden bandaged arm created a crimson puddle on the wood.

“Saints, what did you do Inej?” he hissed, getting up to light a few more candles and grab the cloth he kept in the drawer near his front door. His eyes widened in horror at how much darker the cloth looked in the now fully lit room.

She giggled. It was watery and husky, like her lungs were filled with water. “I unmarked myself.”

He shook his head, throat tightening at the alarming rate at which the puddle underneath her arm grew. “I think you just made a huge fucking mess.”

She snorted, lifting her injured arm to sweep a strand of her hair away before wincing. “Ouch,” she hissed, letting it thump back onto the floors.

Kaz almost laughed. He’d never heard her say such a childish thing before. Ouch. She’d gotten grazed by a bullet a month ago and she’d still stayed completely silent.

“Get up, Inej,” he muttered, towering over her, careful to not walk right into the puddle of her blood. He could already see the face the maid would give him. A more than usual deep scowl would crease her face tomorrow morning when cleaning up this mess.

“I’m tired,” she licked her lips, looking up at him through lashes. “I can’t move.”

He sighed. “Yes you can. Now get up.”

Her head lolled to the side. “Nope, I can’t, I can’t.”

A spike of anger rushed through him that he breathed through, lips pressed tightly together. He looked at the water beading onto her sooty lashes, the flush of her cheeks and closed his eyes. Fuck it.

He turned around and snatched his gloves. If he didn’t pick her up he knew his spider would most likely bleed out in an hour or two. It’s terribly hard to find good spiders, he reasoned with himself as he slipped his gloves on, clenching and then unclenching his fingers in preparation.

Kaz crouched over on her left side, hesitating as his fingers suddenly felt the wave of heat emanating off of her from proximity. This close the coppery scent of blood lingered in the air. Haggard inhales and exhales went through his nostrils as he readied himself. She’s alive, she’s breathing.

Kaz instantly swooped his hands underneath her arm and tugged her up, rather clumsily depositing her onto his desk’s curved chair. Immediately when she slumped onto it he jumped back, his stomach already churning with bile as he gasped for air. Spots beaded his vision as water rushed up his body, thick and stenched with rot.

He stumbled backwards, legs hitting his bed and he fell onto it, begging his lungs to expand and contract. She sat there, mumbling underneath her breath and blood trickled off her fingertips like rain droplets as he stared at his own trembling hands.

She was scalding hot. Not with a fever or anything, but heat radiated off of her like right underneath her skin ran magma instead of blood. His palms sweltered underneath his gloves as he dropped them onto his sides, wondering if he should just storm down the stairs and pull the medik by his throat up here. But she could’ve done that herself, he thought. Perhaps she doesn’t want anyone to know.

Which left the heady question spinning in Kaz’s mind as he got up with the little energy he had, staring at the swing of her braid from behind his chair. Why did she come to me?

He unfurled the roll of cloth, swallowing thickly as he stared at the still oozing wound. He pulled the chair on the opposite side of his desk around to the side, the corner of the desk between them, grimacing at the trail of blood that painted all over his floorboards.

Shoving papers all the way to the other corner Kaz clenched his jaw. “Put your arm out, Inej.”

She moaned with a slightly sobered face, not moving an inch. “It hurts.”

“Yes, because you fucking butchered your arm!” he shouted, more exasperated than angry. He wanted this night to be over already.

Brown eyes stared at him before she finally threw her arm onto the table, the wet cloth making a loud squelching noise as it plopped onto the surface. “Don’t shout at me, Kaz,” she said, a bit more hushed.

“I-I wasn’t…” He sighed. He hated when her voice went that low. “I wasn’t trying to shout. You just won’t fucking listen to me.”

Her eyes rolled. “Because I’m not your soldier to command.”

You can’t kill your own spider, he reminded himself as he picked at the sodden bandage till it lifted enough for scissors to slip in. You’re not that reckless. His fingers were high in the sky, making sure to not brush against her skin.

After discarding the material into the bin, he stared at the open wound. It looked like she’d taken a butcher’s knife and slashed her flesh like chopped up meat. To her luck though they didn’t seem too severe individually, just a vast array of slightly deep lines. He found her watching him.

“Why didn’t you just pay a tailor?” His voice was so quiet in concentration and something else, something he’d rather not delve into.

She blinked, one, twice, thrice. He thought she was losing her mind till he saw the glimmer of water she was trying to keep at bay in her eyes. The haze of alcohol had disappeared from her face. “I wanted to remind myself.”

He couldn’t move his gaze. “Remind yourself what?”

Her face darkened. “What happened when I let my guard down.” She lowered her eyes to the wound. “If I hadn’t been so careless and unaware that day when the slavers came...”

He didn’t expect her to finish, perhaps didn’t even want her to. Ifs and buts were the coward’s way around accountability, and usually Kaz would point that notion out. But this wasn’t a situation where he thought his philosophies would help or hold importance. She had been just a child. Like I had been a child.

He snagged his pocket square from his desk. “Lift your arm, Inej.”

She didn’t protest.

Kaz was careful to make contact with her skin only when necessary, when he was turning her arm around and wiping the blood away with the cloth dabbed into his glass of water. Her face had turned sullen, and he almost wished she’d go back to her childish antiques from a few minutes ago.

His gloves were stiff with crusted blood by the time he finished wiping her clean, rinsing them before he went onto the task of bandaging. The silence was a slow creep of water flooding a floor.

It was only once he’d managed the last loop around her forearm when she spoke again, a frightening amount of clarity to her voice. “Why did you tell Jesper that I didn’t have to get the tattoo?”

Kaz stilled, keeping his eyes on the bandage instead of her waiting and curious eyes.

She added in his silence. “I’ve seen every other new member get one. They were under your orders.”

He didn’t know what to say in all honesty. And Kaz Brekker wasn’t someone who got dumbfounded like this very often.

He tucked the remnants of the bandage underneath the layers before answering, ignoring the nausea it spelled. Why was it so hard to speak?

“Because no one should decide to mark you but yourself.” He met her eyes, the entire galaxy shimmering within her wide pupils. “Not even me.”

She opened her mouth to speak but shut it only moments after, looking all over his face. He ignored the spike of heat it caused down his spine. Inej nodded, placing her arm back in her lap.

Sobriety seemed to be awakening her as she brushed her fingers over the bandage. “Thank you,” she murmured. A beat, then, “For all of it.”

He didn’t ask her what she meant by that, and she didn’t bother further explaining.

She’d swallowed two painkillers and slipped out of his window like the ghost she was, unheard, vanishing.

They never mentioned that night ever again.

-

It was a tell of hers. Kaz didn’t know if she knew, but he’d figured it out only weeks after she’d sliced open her skin. When she was confused or overwhelmed, when the intricacies of a heist they were planning made both of them dizzy with exhaustion, when she had to ignore the leering stares of drunks. Her long fingers, that climbed roofs at a conspicuously fast rate, that trembled when she touched a dagger, would trace the lines of her tattoo’s scars.

It was an unconscious move, he understood after some time. She’d dug her left hand underneath her skin and he’d know even from the sight just in the corner of his eyes what she was doing.

One night he told her about it, irritations and frustrations boiling over in hissing and spiteful words.

“Your tell is quite obvious, Wraith,” he spat out, using the name that was now used to whisper about the Dreg’s spider.

She stopped in her storming strance, twisting around to gape at him. “What?” The hood over her raven hair hid half her face, and yet he could still see the snarl of her lips.

He pointed one long finger at her wrist, Inej following its trajectory. “The scar. It would be more obvious to the fools around us if they weren’t such blind fucking fools.”

Her shoulders tensed. A hand brushed over the marred skin. “I hadn’t…”

“You hadn’t noticed?” His tongue curled like a serpent. Their night wasn’t going according to their careful plan. She wasn’t okaying his changes to the plan and he didn’t quite understand the absurd ones she’d made. His bloody head and knee hurt.

When she didn’t respond he took a step forward in the alleyway between the two embassies, murky droplets of yesterday’s rain plopping onto the cobblestones around them. “A ghost leaves no imprints or impressions.”

Her jaw tensed. “I know.”

“Then stop making your tell so fucking obvious,” he barked. Saints, his forehead was throbbing. “Perhaps it’s not in your list of goals, but I sure as hell do not want to get killed because of someone else’s lazy and foolish behaviour.”

Only eight months in his presence and she’d never flinched once. She didn’t flinch in that moment either. Her lips thinned, fingers pulling her sleeve down further. Inej took a step forward. Her eyes were two black moons, face a molten mold of steel. “I’ll make sure that doesn’t happen.”

“Good.”

Her nostrils flared. “I won’t let that happen because Saints forsake I end up dying right next to you, Kaz.” A serpent hid under her tongue as well.

They ended up using her changes, unwilling and unbeknownst to Kaz, and they still walked home the next morning alive, albeit a bit more bloodied and battered. The medik counted a handful of wounds that needed to be sewn up across Kaz’s arm.

Inej hadn’t uttered a single word to him even after all 6 stitches were eventually removed from him. The silence was even more unbearable than her inaudible feet, he begrudgingly admitted.

A month later they’d conducted yet another plan. It went smoother than the prior, like a clean cut of metal. They ate one too many plates of waffles afterwards, the sound of her alive and almost joyful voice chattering with Jesper a balm to the deafening void he’d been punished with for weeks.

Her fingers never strayed near her scarred wrist even once.

-

When Nina traced Wylan’s drawing into her glistening brown skin he’d looked away.

It was a cowardice move.

He’d never suffered the extremities she’d had, hell, he felt sick to his stomach just at the thought, but he still turned his head away. No, actually he felt angry. He wanted to wring the long neck of Tante Helleen with his bare hands, to feel the crush of tissue and bones and purpled skin till she was nothing but a dolled up corpse. She’s not mine to kill. He looked away till he caught Inej staring out of the inky black sea just outside of their reach, at the Ferolind that sat eagerly in the cold Fjerdan waters for them. She didn’t look fearful, no, she looked determined. Her very own scheming face, Kaz realized.

And just like that he knew that he’d get her back on that boat. If his corpse had to be revived for that to happen, so be it. I will make sure you survive, he vowed, staring at the shine of her mahogany-like orbs. Saints help anyone who tries to stop me.

-

“Saints’ speed, Kaz,” she murmured, turning around.

“Inej,” he grabbed her wrist before she could walk the other way, thumb tracing the crooked and broken tattoo that was painted over her mottled skin. He thought about the blood that had spilled from those scars two years ago. Sometimes he couldn’t believe he’d known her for two years. It simultaneously felt like he’d just met her gaze in the Menagerie and as well, known her since birth.

She’s not his shadow, nor his Wraith. He needs her to know that she’s Inej to him, the bravest and loveliest person he’s ever had the fortune of meeting. He may die tonight. They may die tonight.

“If we don’t make it out, I want you to know…” The whistling and frigid cold winds pierced his cheeks as he stared at her opened mouth. If he was braver, if their story was kinder, he’d have swept her off her feet right then and kissed her. He’d shower her with the words he’d never been able to conjure, too afraid of destroying the bricks he’d built.

But he wasn’t that brave, and neither was their story of the kindest.

He watched her shoulders slump in gentle disappointment. Just like in everything else she managed to remain kind even when he’d caused her yet another wave of grief.

A rough hand cupped his face and in his grief he registered the nausea only after a good few minutes, too caught up in the feel of her skin, her bare and very warm and alive skin touching his for the first time. He shuddered when the water relentlessly began rising.

“If we survive this night, I will die unafraid, Kaz. Can you say the same?”

No, he wanted to say, I’m too scared to let you leave. I’m worried you’ll learn that I deserve nothing more than your cold and unrelenting hatred. Don’t leave. Stay. Be my Wraith. By my Inej. Be by my side till the end, guns blazing, knives out. But then he thought of the glint in her eyes as she spoke about leaving, of finally getting rid of the shackles of the grime they called a city, and with it, him. You should leave, he accepted, heart but a crumble of shattered glass at the understanding. You deserve to not be disappointed anymore.

But at the end of the day Kaz Brekker wasn’t brave enough to say all of that just yet, and Inej Ghafa wasn’t willing to wait any longer.

An acceptance of sort curled her brows almost in mourning, and Kaz knew this was it. She’d made her choice and he was nothing but a coward, unwilling to change it.

He watched her long braid wisp in the cold wind as she walked away with Nina, the heat of her palm like a gentle and humming fire on his cheek, protecting it from the chill that stiffened the rest of his face and what remained of his broken, splintered heart.

-

As she looked through the telescope with one hand, the other entwined with his, he distracted his pounding and nervous heart with the smoothness of the skin above her wrist under the pad of his thumb. He thought of the melancholy that had glazed her eyes all those years ago as she marred herself, at the unknown ache he’d felt in his heart as he wrapped her bandage, so careful to not let his leather-cladded hands touch her. He didn’t know if she’d wanted it all gone, all the crooked and ugly lines that had scarred her glorious skin from that night. But selfishly he felt glad that they were gone anyways.

She wouldn’t ever need to get to that point in her life again, where all hope was stolen from her from a thieving hand even Kaz couldn’t out-trick, where she thought she needed wounds to protect herself.

When he’d seen the hope he’d stolen from her that night by the tomb, when she confessed that she didn’t think he’d come for her, he knew how wrong he’d been, how foolish.

He’d let himself think those bricks he’d built around himself would touch no one but him like a shield, like his gloves, little did he know that those stones had begun hardening the very hope that made her dark eyes spark, made the glint of her teeth under grinning lips twinkle.

It was possibly the worst mistake, the worst error he’d made in his life. He wouldn’t make it twice.

So, Kaz watched her adjust the looking glass after letting his hand go, watched that spark in her eyes infinitely multiply till they shined like the constellations in the night sky.

Inej drew in a sharp breath as two silhouettes neared, and with it, drew out yet another brick from his wall.

🂦

His entire body was trembling like a solitary leaf in a storm. It was one of the few times where he embraced it, savoured the feeling because of who was causing it.

Inej’s long fingers brushed over the crow’s feathers on his forearm for the first time ever, nothing more than a wisp of skin against his. But his entire body was still shaking anyway. His shirt laid neatly tucked behind him, the remembrance of her fingers dipping each button out of their hole making his skin feel hot.

Kaz kept his eyes on her face, on the cupid’s bow that curved even more with her opened mouth. The coffee of her eyes were barely visible, pupils dilated till all that was left were two fat blots of black ink. He liked that he caused that.

“It’s beautiful,” she murmured softly, hot breath fanning over his bare arm and chest.

“Every person on the floor below has the same tattoo, Inej.”

She almost rolled her eyes. “Let me have this.”

He shut his mouth.

Air came in and out of him in desperate and short gulps. The desk underneath him, where his knees were splayed apart for her to stand between, felt cold from the winter winds. Eventually she had traced the entirety of the crow and the cup, taking one step closer to examine the other tattoo. Kaz tried to not shudder at the brush of her hips against his thighs.

“Why an ‘R’ Kaz?” She tilted her head to take a better look.

He thought of the bronze wind up dog, the swim of Mayra’s image as she inked the tattoo into his skin. “Rietveld.”

Her eyes widened as they met his, understanding instant and absolute. She almost smiled. “Johannus Rietveld, Jordie Rietveld?”

He nodded. Sometimes it frightened him how well she knew him.

Her bare fingers hovered over the top of the letter, where the ‘R’ rounded with the curve of his bicep. “Go on,” he managed, thinking of her harmonic voice, of towels and bandages in an expensive bathroom. It isn't easy for me, either.

Hot skin grazed him. It felt like he was dying. It felt like a thousand unbidden images he didn’t want to hide in his mind’s vault anymore. Her palm flattened to cup the muscle, tracing the loop of the letter that ended with a curved tail. “I thought of getting one as well.”

Her scent was so intoxicating, steel and hibiscus tea, that he dizzily had to blink. “I didn’t know that.”

A small smile played across her lips. “It was only a few months before we met Wylan I think. There’s this symbol the Sulis sometimes draw onto surfaces where they decide to set their caravan, like an image of good luck and fortune for the land that will provide them a temporary home.” She lowered her arm to draw what Kaz assumed was the symbol, like four L’s connected by a dot right below his ‘R’.

“Why didn’t you get it then?”

Her hand dropped to the surface beside his leg, the consequent brush of forearm against his thigh making the flesh vibrate. Inej opened her mouth to speak but only let out a short laugh as if schooling herself. “It’s silly,” she shook her head.

“Tell me.” He was smiling too, unwillingly.

She sighed. “I…I wanted to get my Mama’s permission.”

Kaz snickered. “I think you were old enough to not need parental approval, Inej.”

“No, no,” she bit her curved lip. “It’s because Mama would draw the symbol into the grass before we started settling on a place. She was the one who adored it most and believed in its powers. I don’t know…it just never felt right to draw that onto my skin without her wishes.”

He didn’t know what to say to that. There had never been any traditions or rituals in his family. The Rietvelds would simply wake up every morning, work the fields, eat their fill of food, and go back to bed. Jordie was the only one who insisted on making each day seem a bit different than the one before. Kaz suddenly wished that they had made some kind of tradition, too.

He lifted his hand to thumb the plaits of her thick braid that had swung forward. It was silken and sultry under his thieving fingers. “You could always get it now. I’m sure Mrs. Ghafa would be more than glad to bless you.”

She shook her head. Her face softened with joy. “I needed it at that time to keep their faces and heritage near me. It always felt like every day I was straying away from the culture I was born into.”

Kaz let the braid fall, watching it brush her arm. “And now?”

“And now,” she grinned. “I can simply go to them.” The sight of her smile was so lovely that Kaz wished someone had painted it for him. Something he could glance at when the absence of her presence in his office as she set sail became too much.

Her knuckles brushed his sharp cheek. She was shaking too, he realized in comfort. “Kaz Rietveld.”

The sound of his discarded name on her glorious tongue made his spine shiver. He wondered what Kaz Rietveld would have thought of Inej Ghafa. He suspected Rietveld would have fallen for her only two seconds before Kaz Brekker had. He’d have been better with his words, too.

Bile clawed it's way up his esophagus as he pulled her closer in with a bare palm on her shoulder. He was thankful for her long sleeves in that moment. Long lashes fluttered as Kaz pressed a kiss onto her cheekbone. The bone of her cheek was lithe and lethal like her Saint Petyr. A sharp intake of breath was gifted to him that made his stomach pang. It isn't easy for me either.

He felt dizzy, like the ground was dragging him across pavement with a lolling head. It wasn't the first time he'd kissed her cheek, overcome only a few weeks ago to do the same action as she spoke about her second tour beside him on the dock. It had been rash and messy, rewarding him with the overwhelming sensation of drowning. But it also gifted him with her wide and wondrous eyes staring at him with something that left him breathless, that made those unbidden images resurface.

She took two steps back. That same look painted her face now, but the low lights of his office made everything more molten. Her gaze stayed on the lips that had just kissed her cheek, breath hitching. "I like when you do that," she blurted out, immediately flushing

Without armour. Kaz swallowed. His fingers twitched as they laid on his thighs, still in shock from touching her. "I like doing that to you," he confessed.

A blushing grin spread across her face that she didn't bother schooling. She walked those two steps back between his thighs, hands laying on top of his. Water rushed around him but so did a spike of arousal. He wondered how her hands would feel on around his wrists, on his face, splayed on his bare chest. Saints, he needed to take a walk.

"Keep doing that," she commanded, only a few inches away from his face. He nodded immediately.

As Inej helped him silently button up his shirt once again, the Crow Club and Wraith waiting for both of them, Kaz imagined a pretty little ‘G’ over his chest right above his heart where the ghostly Captain resided, now and always.

 

🂦

 

He hadn’t known what overcame him to ask the words.

They’d been walking down the narrow alley hand in hand, the Fahey-Van Eck reunion lunch a highly anticipated day for all the Crows waiting just a few blocks away. Inej had been telling him about her tour to southern Novyi Zem, where the Wraith had slashed an underground slave trade so violently that the tremors could be heard through whispers all across the country.

He’d of course heard a few days prior from one of his many informants, but he still squeezed her hand with pride, in awe at the hero she’d become, perhaps always was.

She paused her recounting to inhale the wild geraniums she’d brought with her. A smile like a marigold in the summer sun blossomed across her face and his heart halted mid-beat.

He stopped in his steps, making her pause as well. “Are you alright?” she asked through inhales of the petals. The pretty lilac of the flowers along with the gentle blue of her shirt framed her face like a portrait, the most wonderful painting he’d ever laid eyes on.

I’m unafraid, he realized.

“Marry me,” Kaz murmured breathlessly, heart a tied-up bunch of willows, waiting to burst free into the wind.

Inej faltered, the flowers lowered to her side. “What?”

“You’re the loveliest person I’ve ever met.” He shook his head, mesmerized by her splendid sight and valour. “Marry me?”

She stared at him for a whole minute, a torturously long minute. The wisps of dark baby hair around her face danced in the wind as she slowly smiled. The geraniums plopped onto the ground, strewn apart like string. “I don’t care for grand celebrations, Brekker.”

He let out the closest thing to a laugh that his heart could form. The willows flew into the warm wind. “Neither do I.”

And he swept her lithe form off the ground, catching her lips with his own smiling ones, two hands splayed across her back.

Warm fingers curled around his nape to keep his mouth plastered to her as she let herself onto her feet again, the rough skin of her palms against the length of his nape still so pleasurable even after all these years.

“Thank you,” Kaz whispered against her lips, the most irrational feeling overcoming him like the crash of a rolling wave, the anticipation for some more, something better; hope. “For all of it.”

-

The heat of her skin made him swelter like a sponge under a pool of water. When she asked if he was okay, his slick bare chest beaded with sweat, he’d only pulled her closer into his embrace, blaming the relentless summer heat instead.

“Do you want a ring?” Kaz asked against her shoulder blade, her back facing him. Sleep refused to come and he rather liked the notion of a band. Muscles rippled underneath his lips, corded and powerful just like her.

“Hmm?” Inej’s voice was husky, like the way it always got when she was close to falling asleep.

His hands slipped underneath the loose cotton tunic she wore. He felt her belly expand and contract with soft breaths against his palm. The temptation to drag them lower made his chest heat up. “A ring,” he repeated.

Her shoulders rose to wake herself up before she was shuffling in her spot to face him in their bed. Pillow-bruised plump lips and drowsy eyes opened. “Not really,” she mumbled.

Kaz hoped the unreasonable and unexpected disappointment didn’t show on his face. He pecked her forehead. “Go to sleep, darling.”

Her eyes closed and he thought that was the end of it. It was just a random thought anyway. Only a few breaths later, however, she peered at him with a frown. “Do you want one?”

“No, no, I was just-” What did he even want to say? Saints, he didn’t know.

At the tense flush of his cheeks, Inej woke up a bit more, cupping his face. “What is it?”

Kaz shook his head. “It’s nothing.”

She didn’t ask again, only stroked the line of his jaw gently, soothing his absurdly pounding heart. He started again, gruffly. “A few years ago, you told me about the symbol Naina would draw into the grass where your caravan was settling on.”

“Yes?”

“Well, it was a tradition, a custom to commemorate your family and community. And I-my family-never had that. We just went on about trying to survive. So, I just…”

Something washed over Inej’s face as he trailed off, and she let out a watery laugh, caressing his cheek. Her brown eyes glistened. “We can have a tradition too, Kaz.”

An embarrassingly immediate and cool rush of relief spread over him. He grabbed her hand to kiss the inside of her wrist. “I don’t want you to wear something you don’t wish to wear.”

“It’s not that I don’t want it,” she licked her lips, “a ring will affect my grip. It can get caught. I’ll have to change my techniques to get accustomed to it.”

You idiot. “Of course,” he schooled himself, looking away. He hadn't even bothered thinking about that.

“Hey, hey,” Inej turned his face back in her direction. When she touched him without his eyes on the movement like that, it was always slow and patient, a reminder that she would always stop when he needed her to. Her spider-like and gifted leg grazed down his limping one. “We can do something else.”

Kaz’s heart stuttered at the shine of her eyes, that sparkle never quite leaving. It made him not want to be ashamed for his thrumming and wanting heart. Lately the shimmer had been affecting Kaz more than usual, making him a sanguine fool, even an…optimist.

He shuffled himself closer to her, the hibiscus tea she’d sipped on before bed lingering on the lips he caught between his own. It astonished him that he’d lasted almost one decade without her in his arms, without her taste on his tongue even when she was near.

One decade of watching Inej from afar, his heart in her palms, but only his heart. Now though, Kaz didn’t hesitate to hand over everything else, the things he’d been too afraid to share and gift for fear of another floating body in Reaper’s Barge, of another soul destroyed by the cruelty of Ketterdam, of his own monstrosities. He wasn’t scared anymore.

They never said those three words to each other, both feeling they were too futile to describe the feeling they felt when the other was near, when they were in each other's arms. Those three words were a shallow flush of water on cobblestones, and what they felt for each other was like the rush of a wave in a hurricane, the winds in a storm.

Still, he couldn't help when he said them. She was his best friend, his partner. His life. He needed to convey it somehow. "I love you," Kaz said through his suddenly trembling throat. "I've loved you for so long. Before I even understood it. You know that, right?"

"Oh, my jaan." A stray tear puddled into the bridge of her nose. She kissed his wet lips. "I knew then, just like I know now."

-

“How about a tattoo?” she suggested a few bells later, the pink morning sun a blushing hue on her beautiful brown skin.

Kaz looked down at the smooth skin of her right wrist. Sometimes under the press of his lips he swore he could still feel the slight scars. “Inej-”

I would be getting it, with my own and complete admission and will.” Inej nodded. “By my choice.”

Still, he shook his head, reluctant. “I will never mark you.”

“You wouldn’t be marking me,” she said, pressing her lips to his serrated jaw that seemed to soften into a petal underneath her touch. “I’m yours anyways, tattoo or not.”

And I am yours, now and always. My heart and mind and being. My soul. Kaz said those exact words to her as soon as his mind thought of them. There was no time to translate the honest words of his bare and open heart into some cryptic set of proses anymore.

Inej nodded, throat caught. He hated that it surprised her, his confessions. He’d hidden them for so long, letting her think her worth was nothing more than his Wraith that even now when he spoke such words he could still see the disbelief as she listened.

Instead of responding she decided to push him onto his back and caged his hips between her knees, long and swindling fingers, like his own, splayed across his bare chest. “I know that.”

Kaz looked at her, really looked at her. He wanted to make sure that she was confident when she said she knew. That she understood that what he was saying wasn’t just frivolous words meant to please her but the very truth that had been etched on his pulsing heart from the moment he’d laid eyes on her in the Menagerie. His heart clenched as he saw it in her sparkling eyes.

“And still, I want it.” Inej lowered her head to press against his lips, his own thieving hands clasping onto the flesh of her powerful legs. The water was a shallow brush against his feet, like a limp and weak puddle.

He thought of how lovely her legs looked around his waist or when they caged his shoulders as she was pressed apart by his trembling fingers. He thought of how her soundless legs moved across The Wraith, waves not bothering to drown out the noises she never made. He thought of her patience, her kindness, her goodness. The water didn’t dare rise and his wanting fingers dug into her thighs.

“But only if you do too,” she continued.

That sanguine feeling washed over Kaz once again. “Anything you want, Captain.”

He pushed her flat against his body, knees caging her muscled form as he kissed the pulse of her neck. The tie of her braid was tugged off. Duties could wait.

Untamed, unashamed desire coursed through him as her now loose hair curtained their faces, the onyx colour not dark enough to eclipse the glint of her beautiful eyes.

She was Inej Ghafa, after all. No darkness could shadow her light.

-

Kaz held her hand as she got the tattoo, and she held his as he got his (as he ignored Mayra’s smirk). They went late at night for discretion. No one else needed to know of such a sacred thing. Our tradition. Compared to the pulsating pain of his other two tattoos, this one was but a gentle pinch.

They’d been impatient in their wait to melt the wax off. But Mayra’s stern words barked in his head, if you don't let the wound heal all the way, you'll end up carrying around slowly rotting flesh.

So, they waited the entire week. He stared at it as he walked the Crows Club, as Anika informed him of another Dime Lions stint.

When the time had finally passed, they’d placed a long and shallow bowl of hot water and vodka between them, holding each other’s gaze as they dipped their hands into it. Murky water hid underneath two long ring fingers that usually held blades and guns that had spilled and washed off blood.

Those two fingers now each carried an inked and thin band of vined geraniums, a Wylan design. Kaz stared at his pale hand, the design so delicate and out of place for the hand of a monster like him. He glanced at Inej’s, a matching one banded around her finger. It looked like it was meant for her hand.

Her mouth opened in awe, eyes flush with tears as she met Kaz’s gaze. “I love it.”

“Do you?” he asked honestly. The registry papers that were tucked into their drawer were just documents, this open wound that they’d have forever was a different kind of fidelity and promise.

“Yes,” she laughed out, tracing the design. Her wide eyes were filled with wonder. “I didn’t know ink could bring me this much joy.” Wisps of inked feathers on brown skin flashed in his mind along with hollow eyes.

“Does it hurt?” He was almost nervous.

She shook her head, now tracing his band. “It didn’t hurt one bit.”

The bowl was deposited onto his nightstand behind him, letting Kaz edge near her. He hesitated before taking her hand into his. I’m unafraid. “If…if you ever don’t want it anymore, even if for a second, I wouldn’t-”

“I know.” She held his face between her palms, the trembles of nerves dissipating at contact. “Same for you, too.”

Kaz scoffed, not meaning for it to sound so guttural and crude. “I would never-” his head felt dizzy just at the thought, “I would never want to do that.”

She climbed into his lap, arms around his neck. “Still,” she said softly into his shoulder. It’s only then that he realizes she was nervous as well, the gravity of the ink perhaps just now hitting her, of what it signified. It wasn’t like they hadn’t interwoven their lives unwillingly then willingly together for this many years, but... He contemplated with his arms around her. To his dismay he couldn’t quite pinpoint what it was. Perhaps the finality of it? The irrevocability of it. But then hadn’t he just told her he wouldn't mind her get rid of it if wanting to? Saints. He didn’t know.

As if figuring the storm that brewed in his mind, Inej lifted her head up, sucking her teeth. “We have to figure out how we’re going to tell Jesper and Wylan.”

Kaz closed his eyes, feigning worry, silently thanking her for the distraction. “Forget them, think of Nina.”

Inej groaned dramatically, nose pressing into his cheek. He still hadn’t asked her how she was always that warm. “It’s gonna be a long letter, I fear.”

Kaz pecked her soft cheek. When was the first time he’d kissed her cheek? Five, six years ago? He didn’t remember. Kaz kissed it again for good measures. “Those months of writing out account balances may actually come in handy for once.”

The smooth ink on her finger felt soft against his cheek when she cupped it, comforting like his own ink, like leather still did for him when it was all too much. “I’ll help you out,” she promised into his neck, kissing the warm and alive flesh of Kaz Brekker.

-

Being with her that night felt different than the ones before for some reason. By law they had been married for a week, a simple sign of papers and a sweeping kiss behind a closed office door.

My wife, Kaz had whispered to himself in the mirror of the courthouses’ bathroom. My lovely wife, Inej. Captain of the Wraith, Slayer of Slavers.

The heat of her eyes now felt different as they stumbled into the bed, the intensity and intent something more. Her bare and glorious skin under his shaking palms felt more known, like a new limb, as if the band of ink had intertwined their flesh and bones as much as their souls and hearts.

His gravelly voice murmured her name into the swan-like length of her neck, the heat and salt of her skin all-consuming to his insatiable mouth. Deft legs bracketed his slender hips, rough palms ran down his scarred back and long nape. His belly undulated against hers, the press of his body on hers letting him feel the thudding of her heart beneath her breast. Pleasure hummed from the tip of his toes to the ends of his hair.

For so long he'd thought such acts of gratification were impossible for him. If it wasn't because of the scars of his childhood, it was because of his mind. Love and lust, attachment and fidelity all seemed like the traps of fate. A sugared thorn meant to lure poor saps into trading their life's work for another's hand. There was a saying in the Barrel: one cannot have a sound mind and sound heart in this city, the two being like oil and water. You either choose the riches of the heart and run off to Babylon penniless, or you stay in this hell with a vault of gold and an army at your back.

Much to his own surprise, Kaz had really lived life by making his ideals black and white. It wasn't that simple though, he’d understood over time. Yes, money, power, and influence were the reason he was able to sleep where he did, have the people working for him that he did. It was the reason he hasn't wound up right beside his brother all those years ago. But it wasn't enough, it never would be.

Fortune would always be his rope but ardor and solicitude were his net, patiently keeping an eye on him. And once he'd found that net in the Crows he begrudgingly called his friends and companions, he knew that they were a necessity for his means to thrive and not just weapons of manipulation and tools for survival.

And Inej...

Without meaning to, she'd shown him the value of things other than Kruges, kinder things. She had the same thirsts as him, the ones that made her eyes go so dark that he saw his entire reflection in them. But then she had others as well, noble and altruistic, the ones he'd scoffed off for far too many years as her naiveté. Some were harder to wrap his head around while others he could almost thank the Saints for finally giving him. Those were the ones that had given him his Crows, those were the ones that finally opened his eyes to what was ultimately more important than any single thing he'd ever owned or held power over, Inej.

Inej, Inej, Inej. It seemed like once she'd crept her way into him, mind and heart both, like the wraith she was he couldn't comprehend what it would be like for her not to be present there anymore. He didn't believe in those farcical one body two souls proverbs, but he slowly slowly understood the intent of them. Inej wasn't just his partner but a part of him as well, a voice of reason in his mind, the warmth that ran through his blood, the tattoo that was etched into his heart and now skin. She was what made him who he is now. She was...everything.

They moved like a current together, the synchronicity of their bodies no different now than is was as they slit the throats of their enemies. He kissed a line down her neck and between the slopes of her breasts. He liked the sound the action emitted from her, a breathless keen.

He still felt it, the shallows of murky and rotting water, as if phantom flushes of waves were crawling their way up his body. But so was Inej. The nausea was but a single weed in a field of geraniums.

He loved the way she held him, as if caught in a storm and he was the only means of purchase for her not to be swept away. She liked to be in control, commanding even the pulse of his willing heart when wanting to. The few times he’d set sail with her, her voice was that same kind of steel. Daring, imposing as it was when she hung above him with an opened mouth and dark eyes that held the entire galaxy; a blazing phoenix in a dark sea. Kaz didn’t mind.

Inej’s hands tugged on his short hair, bringing his ear near her glistening mouth. Her legs tightened around him. “I like calling you my husband.”

He twisted the long hair that splayed on the pillow beneath her around one finger. Words were difficult to form in the throes of such acts. The intoxication of wanted indulgences incapacitated even the Bastard of the Barrel. Inej understood that. So, when he gave her only a breathy laugh in response she grinned like a blossoming rose, swallowing the sound with her mouth and roll of her hips.

Later, with sated and strung bodies, Inej traced the ‘R’ on his bicep as he watched her. She was already an extraordinary being, but with slick skin, fat pupils, and curled baby hair she was ethereal. The temptation to devour her bruised lips again made his chest flush.

“I like calling you my wife, too.” The words came out softly and almost shyly, his throat tight from her overwhelming beauty.

Inej laughed. Brown skin peppered with rose petals. “I’m not changing my last name.”

He kissed his lovely wife’s wrist. My lovely wife, Inej. “I wouldn’t want you to anyways.”

Her nose scrunched at a thought. “Kaz Ghafa doesn’t sound very nice either.”

Rietveld had a nice ring to both of their names. Perhaps if they had met in a different life as a farmer and an acrobat they’d end up sharing that name. Perhaps he’d have become Mr. Ghafa. But Brekker wasn’t just his name anymore, it was also his identity. Sure he wasn’t all bastard as he once was, the Rietveld slowly slowly seeping itself back onto his skin, but he knew he still didn’t deserve his true name. Too much of Ketterdam runs through his veins.

“Ghafa and Brekker sound just fine,” he murmured.

Her hand trailed down from the ‘R’ to his hand, tangling their fingers. “Ghafa and Brekker it is.”

-

Kaz never cared for goodbyes. He treated partings like he treated deaths, no mourning.

Her stay hadn’t been any shorter than the ones before, two or three weeks at the most. This time had actually been four whole weeks. And yet he felt his heart sit heavy the entire morning, like the sing of his knee after heavy showers of rain. She was an anomaly to his ambivalence; he hated it.

Six-and-a-half years of sending her off on The Wraith and he still hadn’t mastered the grief he felt as she departed. No mourning, he’d beg himself every time the tall ship disappeared into dark waves. Yet the absence of her presence in the air of Ketterdam was all-encompassing, an overwhelming boulder to his wretched heart.

He tried his best to not show it on his face on the dock as they strolled slowly, though his heart felt particularly tender. Saints, Kaz and tender.

Kaz’s cheeks were sucked in, the poor inner flesh of his mouth caged between his teeth, one hand curled tightly around his cane. In moments like these, his hands ached for the cool encasing of leather.

“Oi, brooding sod!” Jesper laughed, nudging him with an elbow out of his reverie.

He shot a weak glare at the sharpshooter, earning him nothing but a chuckle. “Save those beady eyes for your new recruits.”

Inej, who was hugging Wylan tightly, let out a snort against the redhead.

“These beady eyes once put the fear of the Saints in you, Fahey,” Kaz barked.

Jesper scoffed. “We were all young idiots at one point, Kaz." He pulled Inej into a tight hug, barely listening to her protests at the suffocating nature.

“Jesper-” Inej eventually punched him in the arm, the loud and dramatic ow her friend let out barely fazing her as she gasped for air. “I’m not a stuffed toy,” she hissed.

Jesper pouted. “But you're small like one.”

She dug a finger into his chest, “Jesper-”

“Okay, ow, ow, ow !” he stumbled backwards, grabbing onto Wylan’s shoulder for purchase as he raised his hands up, grumbling. “Brekker is making you a grump, you know?”

“Or you almost crushed her windpipes,” Wylan chimed in.

Or, that Bastard is rubbing off on our sweet Inej.” Jesper tisked his tongue dramatically.

Shut up,” Kaz and Inej said in unison.

He waved them off, pulling Wylan’s pale hand into his. “I know you’ll miss me when you’re gone, Wraith.” She didn’t deny and he gave his charming little grin.

“Guess we’ll leave the lovebirds, oh no-" he lowered his voice, "-newlyweds alone.” He cackled, barely avoiding Inej’s swat on the arm as he and Wylan waved her a goodbye.

“I still regret saving him from those men,” Kaz muttered, glaring at the sharpshooter as he kissed Wylan’s freckled cheek from afar.

His jaw set as he took her in. The one positive he could think of was that she would come back, whenever she did, with glowing skin and even more freckles. He liked counting them as they went to bed. They clustered right underneath her eyes in dark brown dots, as if pollen had tumbled onto her skin.

He’d run his hands all over her only a few bells ago, both knowing that they’d rather not display their intimacy out in the open. He was still Dirtyhands, the Bastard of the Barrel, and she was still the Wraith, the silent and deadly captain of her namesake.

Kaz knew he’d already kissed her mouth and skin silly. But in the bright and golden sunlight her lips still looked bruised, and he wished to kiss them again and again and yet again. Saints. Perhaps he should talk a walk afterwards.

He tightened his grip on the crow’s beak, still smooth even all these years later. “Safe travels,” he murmured.

Inej tilted her head. Small curls from her morning bath still framed her face, barely tussling in the gentle summer winds. A knuckle brushed down his cheek, quick and slight, like her. “Don’t die.”

He caught it before it could fall to her side, before he could stop himself, breath caught in his throat. He’d already dealt with her Saints, threatened them with the cruelest words his bastard mouth could spew. It was to ensure that she strolled down these same docks in a few weeks or months with the same ease on her face. So help them otherwise.

Still, he felt the need to hold her fingers up to his lips, pressing a kiss onto the thin line of ink right below her knuckles, a plea. “Don’t you die either, Wraith.”

Neither of their faces shifted to anything more than a slight smile or terse nod as dockworkers and hustlers of Ketterdam ran around them. They were the Wraith and Dirtyhands to them all, the cruelest monsters birthed in the sooty streets of Ketterdam. In these moments he almost wished they weren’t though. Just so he could hold her close, so he could shower her with honest and sweet words during her last few moments on their land.

He had a city to rule, and Inej had the True Sea and the people who hid behind its relentless waves to tame. He knew that even when she was so far, she’d always be close though. That his heart was a river that would carry him to her seas eventually. No lands or waters could keep them apart anyways.

Kaz stood at the docks till The Wraith was nothing but a thimble floating in the dark sea. He could already feel the void of her absence, feel the darkness creeping into his heart like cod murky waters. The powdery bricks begged to be lined up once again around him.

Overwhelmed, he glanced down at the small geraniums that painted his ring finger, remembering the glint of her eyes as it was inked into his skin. He thought of her laughter and the silence of her feet, the silk of her hair and the dimples of her lithe and corded back. A wave of heat soothed his shaky chest, like a hot bath or warm sheets, the spread of sweet hot chocolate down his throat.

She will go, and she will come back, he reminded himself. Flowers laid on a curled vine and Kaz soothingly traced each one, six geraniums to be precise.

She will go places, here and far. And with her, my arrowed heart will as well. We will go places.