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Reading Aloud

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The cabin was small, and molding, and leaky.

Inej got there first, with Kaz, driving through the blizzard in the middle of the night with no idea where the road was. The fact that they had arrived safely and she hadn’t driven them over the edge of the cliff was a miracle to her.

They settled in for a shivering night’s sleep on the couches in the tiny living room. She had managed to get a little fire going while Kaz had unloaded the groceries, and while it was still cold, it wasn’t unbearable.

The two little bedrooms upstairs would be, but they would leave them to the others. They would be more than happy to share body heat with their respective significant others all night long to stay warm.

They rose in the morning and Kaz fixed scrambled eggs and toast while Inej made the coffee.

They didn’t speak much as they settled in across from each other in the cramped breakfast nook. Kaz read the news on his phone and Inej had her headphones in, listening to music. They didn’t need to speak much, though. Ever since joining the dregs Inej had had a comfortable understanding with him. They existed well in the same space together, and could communicate very well with no words at all.

Originally, she had thought that this was just a quality of Kaz’s, that he could be silently understood by anyone and everyone, but Jesper looked at her like she was insane when she mentioned it. The only time Kaz was implicitly understood, Jesper said, was when he was making threats.

When the dishes were cleared away, Inej donned heavy boots and every item of clothing she’d brought with her to hike out a few miles and leave the signal for Jesper and Matthias.

She was thoroughly soaked through by the time she made it back, and was sore all over. Kaz was seated on one of the couches and looked up when she tramped in, stamping snow off her boots. She started shedding layers almost immediately, desperate to get the wet clothes off.

When she was down to just her leggings and camisole, she hurried into the bathroom attached to the cabin’s kitchen. There was a bathtub in there but, she quickly discovered, no hot water.

Cursing quietly to herself, she rounded up every pot and kettle she could find in the kitchen, filled them, and set them to boiling on the stovetop. Out of pure desperation, she even set two saucepans in a broiling oven, and took another out to the fire, placing it just before the flames.

Goosebumps had quickly formed on her skin, so stiff they were almost painful. She crouched before the fire, holding her hands out as close as she dared to the flames.

Finally, after two painfully slow rounds of boiling, she had a full bathtub. Craning her neck to make sure Kaz was out of eyesight, she slid out of the rest of her clothes, which clung wetly to her skin, and left them over the back of a kitchen chair.

She slid into the scalding hot water with a sigh of relief. Her hair was loose and tangled around her, but she didn’t bother to do anything about it. She was too tired.

She must have slipped off to sleep. She woke to a soft rap on the bathroom door. She felt warm and floaty, and was irritated to have been awoken.

“Inej?” Kaz called through the door. “I’m just going to get some things from the car. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

“Okay,” she called back. She stood from the tub, water sloughing off of her. She hadn’t brought any clothes into the bathroom with her, so Kaz’s absence would be her best opportunity to change.

Stupidly, she had worn all her clothes on her outing, meaning that she did not have anything warm and dry to put on now. She wrapped a towel around herself, grimacing at the thought of cold wet clothes, and came into the living room to find a surprise.

All her clothes were hung in front of the fire with a piece of twine, which had been strung across the room. Kaz must have done it for her.

She blushed a little at the thought of him picking up after her, hanging her underwear and sports bra up, but was too grateful for it to really feel embarrassed.

Most of her clothes were still a little wet, but they were at least warm. She slid quickly into the driest of them, and was seated on the hearth in front of the fire by the time Kaz ducked back through the doorway.

He settled on the couch across from her, and produced a book, thumbing to a page in the middle and settling in to read.

Inej sat in silence for a few more moments, her arms wrapped around her knees. She loved stories, but not necessarily reading. She used to have her father read to her when she was little. She would curl up next to him, tucked safely under his arm and into his side. His voice had been smooth and deep, and she would fall asleep to the sound of it.

Even now, whenever she was sick or injured, she craved her father’s voice more than anything. Wanted to listen to him read to her the way he had when she was little.

If she had come home wet and bedraggled as she had today, her family would have made such a fuss.

Her aunties would have been boiling kettles immediately, pulling simmering pots of stew and sizzling pans of veggies off the flame to make room, balancing them precariously on countertops and stacks of bricks.

She would have been in a bath in no time, with cousins running constantly in and out. Her mother would have poked her head in every five minutes to make sure she was okay. When the water got cold she would have been bundled into her pajamas and dressing gown. A steaming mug of chocolate would have been shoved into her hands, and she would have tiptoed out to where the uncles sat around the fire, smoking and playing cards. She would have curled up next to her father, and he would have read to her. He loved ancient texts. The Rubaiyat and the tale of Gilgamesh were his favorites. Around the time Inej had been stolen, he had started reading the greeks. She had never been able to bring herself to finish the Odyssey. He had started reading it to her and one day, she told herself, he would finish.

His voice was rich and melodious. It filled a room to the brim, and had a hypnotic quality. Sometimes, when he was reading aloud to her, her mother would come lean against the doorway, listening in with a happy smile on her face.

Nostalgia filled Inej, painful in its intensity.

“Read to me?” she asked, not having even realized that she was going to.

Kaz’s head snapped up and he considered her for a second. Then he turned back a couple pages, presumably to the start of the chapter, and began reading aloud.

His voice was low, and rasping, but when he read aloud it took on the same hypnotic quality her father’s did.

She started finger combing through her hair as he read. It was partially dried from the fire, and the clumpy rat’s nests would only grow worse if she left them. She worked through it in sections, soaking up the sound of Kaz’s reading and wincing occasionally as she pulled at the knots.

The book was philosophical, tackling the question of how to implement Machiavellian ideals on a modern world. It leaned heavily on the work of a german philosopher named Wittgenstein, who Inej had never heard of, but she let herself get lost in the words that spilled from Kaz’s lips.

It was dark, and her hair was once more smooth and braided by the time he closed the book, nodding towards the window where headlights could be seen.

That would be Jesper and Matthias, then. They would have had a terrible day of travel. They had been sent through with real travel papers, but they had been specifically altered to have typos and errors in them as though the visa office had been understaffed on the day of issuance. They would have been flagged going through security and their luggage would have been searched. They carried large sums of money and several expensive pieces of art. It was all perfectly legal, but they had been instructed to “lose” the documentation for it, causing hours worth of delays.

They were the decoys. Entirely legal, but designed to look suspicious.

The true smugglers had been Kaz and Inej, who had brought the true merchandise out with them, floating through security with barely a second glance thrown their way.

Wylan and Nina would arrive in a few days with large hidden quantities of cash, and the ruse would be complete.

The boys were irritated as they came in, whether from the complicated travel or from prolonged exposure to each other’s company, it was unclear.

They both would have preferred to travel with their respective significant others, but Kaz had put his foot down.

“You’ll just get distracted,” Kaz had snarled at Jesper, who was pestering him about it.

“If that’s the case, then it doesn’t make any sense for you and Inej to go together.” Jesper had replied.

Kaz had only rolled his eyes in response, and Inej had blushed and ducked her head. She and Kaz weren't dating, but they were...well, they weren't dating.

“At least let me go with Nina!” Jesper had pleaded, and Matthias had looked up eagerly from where he sat in the corner.

“I will travel with Wylan,” he said.

Everyone turned to look at him, a little puzzled, and he hunched his shoulders in embarrassment.

“I think Nina would like to go with Jesper very much,” he had said.

Kaz shook his head.

“No. Nina and Jesper are distracting influences. I cannot pair them together or the mission will go to shit.”

He had glared around at them all, silencing the protests that had begun to be voiced.

“Jesper and Matthias. Nina and Wylan. Inej and myself. Does anyone have any legitimate questions?”

“Any problems?” he asked now, staring up at the grumpy men.

“Only the anticipated ones.” Jesper grumbled. “You would not believe how many times I’ve been searched today.”

Inej sacrificed her spot by the fire so the boys could warm up, and went to put the kettle on for tea.

They disappeared upstairs shortly after that, and Inej didn’t see either of them again until the next morning when Jesper stumbled blearily down the staircase and collapsed in the kitchen nook.

Inej was standing over a sizzling frying pan at the stove, and Kaz stood perpendicular to her at the sink, washing the dishes. In a rare act of trust, he had laid his black gloves aside to do so, and Inej and Jesper occasionally caught glimpses of pale skin amidst the plates and suds.

“I’m hungry,” Jesper said from where he sat, his head pillowed on his arms.

“I’m making pancakes,” Inej replied.

“Not waffles?”

She flicked a bit of batter at the top of his head.

“Do you see a waffle iron anywhere?”

Jesper sat up, affronted, and began pawing it at his hair, trying to get the globby batter out.

“You have schmutz on your cheek,” he said, glaring at her.

She rubbed at it with the bottom of her shirt, which was already covered in flour and therefore a lost cause.

“No, the other side,” Jesper said. “Lower, a little to your left, no, sorry, your right, just -”

“Here,” Kaz said, stepping in between them.

He reached out with a wet dishcloth and wiped gently at her right cheek. He used the fingertips of his right hand to hold her chin, so her head wouldn’t turn.

He wasn’t wearing his gloves.

She froze in his grip, hands awkwardly floating in the air beside her. She stared up at him. His eyebrows were furrowed and he was intensely focused on his task.

Time seemed to freeze around them. His fingertips were warm and damp on her chin from the dishwater, and his hair was falling down over his forehead.

Finally, he let the rag drop and met her eyes. They hung there for a moment, suspended, her face in his hand.

“Kaz,” she started to say, but he cut her off.

“Your pancake’s burnt.”

And then he turned back to the sink and began vigorously scrubbing at a fork.

Inej met eyes with Jesper, who looked shocked. They stared at each other in astonishment for a moment, and then he gave an exaggerated shrug.

Inej agreed with the sentiment over all, and turned back to her doomed pancake. The skin on her face tingled where he had touched her.

She dumped the blackened mass into the trash and poured out a fresh ladle of yellow batter into the frying pan.

The day continued on normally after that perplexing start. Matthias made an appearance shortly after, and then spent the day pacing around the small cabin, worrying about Nina. Jesper, similarly worried, was crabby and irritable. He snapped at Matthias for pacing, which just made the pacing intensify.

Inej and Kaz spent the day cycling between the kitchen and the main room, trying to avoid the others.

He didn’t touch her again, but if she sat on the couch he would sit beside her, rather than at the opposite end or on the other one. He made her lunch, and when Jesper complained that he and Matthias didn’t get any, he announced that lunch was only for those who didn’t spend all their time driving him insane.

And at dinnertime that night he sat beside her in the breakfast nook, and for five whole minutes his knee pressed against hers, before he gently broke away.

To put it lightly, Inej was highly confused.

She bundled down into her couch that evening when the boys had gone to bed. The fire was blazing, but she was still just shy of warm enough to be comfortable.

She shifted a little. She wore her hoodie and thick woolen socks over her pajamas, and had piled blankets on top of her, but she was still a little too cold to fall asleep.

After a few minutes of this, Kaz cleared his throat. He had been laying on his back on the opposite couch, for all appearances already dead to the world. He reached down and picked up his book. He opened it to his dog ear, cleared his throat once more, and began reading out loud.

Inej curled into a little ball, snuggling down into the blankets. She was still shivering a little, but she let the words wash over her. His reading gave her something else to focus on, rather than the cold, and before she knew it her eyes were sliding shut.

She slipped off to sleep with the steady sound of Kaz’s voice as a lullaby.

When she woke in the morning, Kaz’s blankets were already folded at the end of the bed and she could hear him puttering around in the kitchen.

Bleary-eyed she stood, stretched, and wandered in to join him. He met her at the table with a steaming mug of coffee, and they fell into their usual silent morning routine.

The day passed slowly, muffled by the ever-falling snow outside the windows. Every hour or two, someone would have to go shovel a new path from the door to the car, and when Matthias’s pacing was getting on everybody’s nerves, Kaz sent him out to shovel the whole drive in so they could get the car out in a hurry if needed.

None of them thought it would actually be needed.

The call came in around three in the afternoon. The car Nina and Wylan were driving had broken down and they were stuck on the side of the road. It wasn’t an ambush, as best as they could tell, but they couldn’t be sure.

And without the car, they were trapped in the storm with no heat. Nina’s abilities would keep them warm for a while, but her energy would be depleted sooner or later.

Jesper and Matthias nearly bowled each other over heading for the door. Inej made them slow down, take blankets and jackets and a thermos of hot coffee to warm the lost travellers back up again when they were found. Kaz made sure they had two fully charged phones, and then they were off, leaving Inej standing by herself in the main room, arms wrapped around herself, and worried sick.

What if it really was an ambush? What if Jesper and Matthias couldn’t find them in the snow? What if they got there too late, and Nina had used all her energy up trying to keep them both warm?

She heard Kaz’s lurching step on the floor behind her, and then his gloved hands came into view in her periphery. He tugged her hood up over her head and then let his hands fall. First to her shoulders, and then to her waist.

She wanted to ask what was happening, what he was doing, but she was afraid that if she spoke up it would damage the fragile thing that was building between them.

He tugged gently at her waist and she allowed her body to follow, falling a few inches back into his chest. His arms snaked around her waist to settle over her lower stomach, his gloved hands pressed flat against her belly. She tucked her head into his neck, the soft fabric of her hood against the stiff fabric of his collar, and settled her hands over his lower arms, resting on his sleeves.

He held her for a long time, his chin resting on top of her head. Her legs grew stiff from standing still for so long, but she did not want to move.

Eventually she had to, though.

She pulled away from his loose hold regretfully, turning to face him. Their noses were mere inches apart.

The question was forming on her lips, but he spoke before she could ask it.

“They’ll be fine,” he said sternly. “Jesper and Matthias will bring them back safely if they know what’s good for them.”

She nodded, and he reached out once more, tugging her hood back down.

She abandoned the question. She didn’t need to give voice to it, not right now.

“I’ll go get started on dinner, then.” she said, and he nodded.

They ate in the main room, seated upon their respective couches. She set her bowl on the ground by her feet when she was done, and took up a bit of string.

She liked to play with strings and floss. To knot and twist and braid them. Sometimes she finished one and Nina or Jesper would get a new bracelet, but normally it was just something she would do to keep her hands occupied.

Kaz stood when he was finished, grabbed his bowl and hers, and headed into the kitchen to do the dishes.

He stood in the doorway for a long time when he was done, looking at her. She glanced up at him when he first paused, but then looked back down to her strings. He would be thinking about whatever it was for a while, and nothing would be accomplished by her staring back at him.

He crossed the room eventually, grabbed his book, and then came to sit beside her on the couch. He lifted his arm, tentatively, and she leaned under it, pulling her hood back up to protect the bare skin of his neck. He reached past her, and grabbed the edge of a blanket, tugging it up to cover her, and then began reading.

His voice was softer, he wasn’t projecting to be heard across a room, but was rather murmuring gently in her ear. She could feel the rumble of it in his chest, where her ear was pressed against it.

It was the first day of Yule, she realized with a bit of a pang. The feast of Saint Nikolas would be in a few days. She hadn’t observed any of the holidays or feast days since she’d been stolen, but she remembered them each year.

She pulled herself out from under Kaz’s arms and the reading cut off, suddenly. She could feel his eyes on her as she crossed to the kitchen and began rummaging through the cabinets, but he did not ask and she did not answer. That was the nice thing about Kaz. Sometimes the not asking went both ways.

She found what she was looking for, a single taper, and brought it back to the main room. She lit it and settled in on the windowsill, and then returned to the couch and to Kaz’s embrace. After a moment of consideration, he began reading again.

The candle was meant to guide the saints home, but tonight Inej prayed with all her being that it would bring her lost friends back to her instead.

They rang in the yuletide like that. Curled together in the middle of a blizzard, and lulled by the sound of Kaz’s rasping reading.