“While it is important to figure out how to work in larger groups, that is something that is available to you in almost every other class. Instead, we’ll work in the same pairs the entire year. I’ll pair you up after the first week based on my own observations, and you’ll work together on every project. If you and your partner have issues, talk to me and we’ll figure it out, but I would prefer you guys handle most of your problems yourself,”
Inej Ghafa looked across her desk, too tired to even really know what to say as Kaz Brekker sat down on the other side, carefully setting his cane to lean against the wood.
They looked at each other quietly for a long moment while the rest of the classroom chattered away.
His eyes were brown, she noticed, a bit lighter in color than hers but still inexplicably dark. She had thought they were black, as they somehow avoided catching the fluorescent light from above.
The teacher passed by them and gave them a look, clearly telling them to get going with the ice breaker sheet they’d been handed.
Kaz sighed. “Inej Ghafa, right?”
“Yeah. It’s spelled—”
“I know how to spell it,” Kaz wrote down her name and although his handwriting was surprisingly messy, she could still make out her name. He did it right, so she ignored his curt tone.
She wrote down his name on her paper as well, and then looked over the different questions.
“Where would you like to start? Since we have to turn them in at the end of class…”
“Just go in order,” Kaz said. “What’s your favorite food?”
“Pan bread, and waffles,” Inej answered. “With blueberries,”
Kaz wrote it down.
“Coffee, and waffles too. Chocolate chips though,”
Inej, if she had more energy, would have maybe laughed at the image of Kaz Brekker eating a huge plate of chocolate chip waffles.
They went on like that for a while:
“Do you have a middle name?” she asked him.
“Yes,” he said, which surprised her.
“What is it?”
“Not saying. Any pets?”
“No, I’ve never had a pet, but I feed the birds wherever I live often and they follow me around. This place is full of crows,”
His lip quirked at that.
“Knife tricks and acrobatics,” Inej replied, looking over her set of questions.
“Alright,” Kaz wrote down, almost amused. He seemed to be relaxing more as they went down the paper.
“What about you?”
“Not a hobby, but I can do a lot of magic tricks. And I know a lot of card games,”
“...How isn’t that a hobby?”
Inej wrote it down anyway.
In the end, some of the things she learned about Kaz Brekker were that he drank his coffee black but preferred it a lot more with sugar, that he didn’t like sports but he did like betting on results, and that his favorite color was red.
She didn’t ask about the gloves or the cane or the rasp, and when she had to ask the “what’s the weirdest thing about you?” question, Kaz looked at his cane before answering, in the driest tone she’d ever heard, “My sense of humor. Why did the crow raise his wing in class?”
“To tell the teacher to stop playing matchmaker,”
“Is that what you think she’s doing?” Inej looked around the classroom. She was fairly sure many of the kids paired up together didn’t get along.
“Well, not inherently romantically, but she’s definitely trying to make a point,” Kaz said. “Look at Helvar and Zenik. They’ve been at each other’s throat all last week and now they’re laughing,”
It took her a moment to realize he meant Matthias and Nina but she ahhed when she noticed them. They were in the same Kerch language program as her that most immigrant kids had to go to for at least a year in the Kerch high school system. Nina was clearly fluent but hadn’t been able to convince the administration to let her skip out, which Inej thought was rather silly, and Inej herself mostly needed to work on her writing. Matthias was intermediate in all, and another very fluent boy, Jesper, liked making ridiculous comparisons to help with the translations, He’d also been forced into the program, but for the most part, the classroom was nice, except when Nina and Matthias started to argue about their different countries’ politics. To piss him off more, Nina sometimes switched to Fjerdan. It was amusing.
Kaz, she could tell, was definitely Kerch born and raised. But he hadn’t mentioned her accent at all so she didn’t feel prickly conversing with him.
“Maybe she wants them to be friends to keep the classroom quiet?” she ventured.
Kaz raised a brow. “Considering the pairings she made, I’m thinking that it’s going to be a bit more complicated. Although those two girls at the corner are probably going to kill each other by the year’s end,”
Inej turned to see two girls giving each other sickly sweet smiles while asking their questions and rolling their eyes whenever the other turned away. “Oh, definitely. There’ll be blood,”
Kaz chuckled under his breath and she turned back to him. She felt a little bit more alive as the class went on, but still rubbed at her eyes.
Kaz, she realized, looked tired too, but he was taking sips from a black thermos.
“Coffee?” she asked. Not a surprise considering how much it came up in their get-to-know-you questions.
“Mhmm. Don’t sleep a lot,” Kaz studied her face and Inej fought the need to look away. “It looks like you don’t, either,”
Inej shrugged. Did it matter if she wasn’t able to sleep in her dark and stuffy room, or that she still had the occasional nightmare made up of boys smiling at her and worse? “Not really,”
“Want some?” Kaz offered the thermos to her.
“I’ve never had coffee,” Inej said hesitantly, but she took the thermos anyway.
“What do you drink, then?”
“Juice, mostly. Tea,” Inej brought the thermos to her lips and took a small sip then immediately slammed it back down. “ Bitter ,”
Kaz actually laughed, although it was low enough to not be heard by others. “I did tell you I mostly drink it black,”
“It’s awful,” Inej handed back the thermos and looked for her own water bottle. “How do you even grow to be able to drink that?”
“Mostly out of need, then habit. Who knows, maybe you’ll be drinking coffee like this by the end of the year,”
Kaz raised a brow and drank.
Inej crossed her arms. “And why not?”
“I don’t want to stay at the school longer than I have to,” Kaz replied, taking a sip from one of his damned thermoses. He had three of them that she’d seen, one black, one red, and one silver, otherwise identical.
“I don’t have any way to study comfortably outside of school. And this teacher likes me alright, so I don’t see the problem in asking to stay there when she’s working late,”
“I don’t get along with teachers,” Kaz said, and Inej frowned.
“But you’re a good student, from what I’ve seen?”
Kaz shrugged. “I wasn’t the best a few years back, and the teachers are still on the defensive whenever I’m around,”
She didn’t find it hard to believe, actually. More than once she’d spotted Kaz skirting away from any adult in the school, or talking to kids she wouldn’t have expected him to know. Plus, the monitors and deans always had an eye on him when he passed them by.
There was also that one rumor about him snapping a kid’s wrist that had gotten a few teachers and even other students pulling her to the side asking her if she wanted someone to interfere whenever Kaz spoke to her outside of the classroom. Inej firmly turned them down and away.
She instead asked Kaz where he ate lunch and found out he usually went back to his place that wasn’t too far from the school and ate there. She hadn’t gotten the courage to ask to go with him yet.
The thing about Kaz was that he was, somehow, considerate. He never even touched her, although she figured that was more habit than anything, and he’d quickly figured out that she didn’t like writing up worksheets and the like but didn’t mind doing research at all, so they’d settled into an effective rhythm. He offered her sips of coffee and despite its taste, she took him up on it. It worked.
“Well, I’m sure this teacher won’t mind?” she ventured.
“We could just go somewhere else,” Kaz said.
“I don’t have any money for transport,” Inej said. Her dorm for the program she was in was close enough to the school (well, it didn’t feel very close when it was a thirty-minute long walk and something like 6:30 in the morning when she had to leave) but she didn’t really go anywhere else, nevermind had the money to think about it.
Neither of them brought up the possibility of going to the other’s house, and for that she was relieved.
“Look, I don’t want to stay in the school and the public library is only ten minutes away on the bus,” Kaz said. “I’ll pay for your fare. Does that work?”
Inej stared at him. “You can’t waste your money on that,”
“Will it get you to the public library?” he asked.
“Well, I mean, yes,” Inej tried to say something coherent. She didn’t like anyone spending money on her when she really should have figured out a way to make some herself. “But that seems unfair to you,”
“It’s a few kruge , nothing to worry about. Deal?”
They agreed to meet at the student exit of the school and walked to the bus station, and she didn’t mention his limp, just matched her pace to his and ate a cookie Jesper had given her during their language class. They only had to wait a few minutes for the bus to arrive, and Kaz paid for both of them without her really noticing, because she was busy appreciating the heating from the vehicle.
They muttered over what they would be covering, Inej mentioned food and Kaz waved away the worry saying there would be vending machines. She didn’t argue about paying that time: She’d realized that Kaz didn’t really care as long as they didn’t stay at school. She beat down the guilt, reminding herself that she couldn’t control what he decided to spend his money on. It didn’t help.
They got off the bus and make their way inside, and she’s shocked by how chilly it is. Kaz led them without hesitation to a secluded corner and set down his bag, and she followed.
“Here is fine?” He asked, already taking a seat, and she just nodded, wondering how he wasn’t cold. She had noticed Kaz always wore black pullovers, although they changed in style. She wondered if they were comfortable, then looked down at her own dark pullover. Yeah, they were.
They got to work.
“Inej, wake up,” Kaz gently shook her shoulder, and she groaned and snuggled further into her sweaters. It was Winter and they’d been at the library for hours, and she’d finished her coffee a long time ago.
She drank coffee now. Kaz was a terrible influence. She made it with milk and sugar and he knew how she liked it now too.
“Don’t want to,” Inej muttered.
“It’s almost eleven. The library is about to close,”
“Let it close. I’ll sleep here,”
“Like hell you will. Let's go. I’ll buy you coffee if you wake up now,”
Inej sluggishly turned to him. “Coffee? This late?”
“Why not?” Kaz shrugged. “It’s a warm drink, works well,”
“You’re insane,” Inej staggered to her feet and moved to put things away only to see Kaz had already done it. She slipped her bag over her shoulders instead and followed Kaz’s slow walk outside. He was tired too.
The cold air made her more tired and more awake at the same time, and she shivered in her sweater, which wasn’t warm enough to combat Kerch’s chilly weather.
Kaz took a single glance back at her and snorted. He laughed a bit more around her now, or at least more than she’d ever seen with another student. “You’re going to disappear into that sweater,”
“Enveloped in darkness. Soft, warm darkness,”
Kaz stopped moving and she walked into his back. She started backpedaling immediately and stepped aside, knowing that he didn’t like to be touched, and the only tell that he’d been uncomfortable for that second was the slight relaxation when she moved away.
“Why did you stop?” she asked, skirting around to stand next to him.
Kaz nodded across the street to the coffee shop he sometimes picked up their orders at when they hadn’t brought some from home. The light was still on, and there were two employees there. She’d forgotten it was open so late, but being close to a library probably had something to do with it. “Want to sit inside? I was going to suggest we just walk by a fast food place for your coffee, but why not sit?”
“When it’s eleven at night?” she asked, checking her phone’s clock. It was five after, technically.
Kaz shrugged. “You’re shivering, the bus won’t pass by for fifteen more minutes, and we’re both dead on our feet,”
Inej weighed the options. “Alright. Nothing too strong though so I can fall asleep later,”
They crossed the road.
They didn’t keep track of the time, because they’d instead started talking over different projects, and then their classrooms, and then basically anything that came to mind.
“Wait, what time is it?” Inej asked eventually, already knowing too much time had passed.
Kaz checked his phone. “The bus probably left five minutes ago,”
They stared at each other.
“Want to just stay til midnight?” Inej looked over her wallet. She’d been saving up money to put on the side to be able to buy snacks and food since she’d started hanging out with Kaz, Nina, and Jesper outside of school a lot. She probably had enough to order another drink, but might not be able to go out to eat with Nina during lunch next week.
“Won’t it be too late for you?” Kaz asked.
“I’m hoping that staying up late will mean I’ll fall right asleep when I get back to the dorms. But isn’t it also late for you?”
“I’ll probably just stay awake all night and work,” Kaz leaned back in his chair and stretched out his bad leg.
She’d learned some time ago that Kaz worked as something like a financial assistant at a gambling hall, which was every type of strange for a seventeen-year-old. He handled the taxes, their purchases, how the employees got paid, all of it, and if she fell asleep while they worked she’d usually find him having set aside their schoolwork and taken out papers she couldn’t begin to make heads or tails of, but she’d come to learn that papers with a little crow drinking out of a cup in the header were for the den. She wondered if it had anything to do with his crow-headed cane.
“You need to sleep more,”
“Says you,” Kaz said, some underlying sass coming out as he took a sip from his cup and looked at her own coffee.
Despite it all, sometimes Kaz was still a teenager.
She rolled her eyes pointedly.
Despite it all, sometimes Inej was still a teenager.
They stepped outside with another fresh cup of coffee for both of them and got on the train at 11:55. When Inej noticed that her phone changed to show it was midnight at the same time she’d taken a sip from her drink, she laughed, and Kaz startled next to her.
“Coffee at midnight,” she told him, smiling. “It sounds ridiculous though,”
“But here we are,” Kaz said, knocking his takeaway cup against hers softly.
“But here we are,” Inej said, and didn’t move away when their shoulders and knees brushed against each other. He didn’t either.
“How come you hang out with him so much?” Nina asked, lifting up her sunglasses to glance at Inej’s face. They were at a bagel place a block away from their school for lunch.
“Are you talking about Kaz?” Inej asked, looking over her wallet discreetly so that Nina wouldn’t worry and offer to pay. “What do you mean, why do I hang out with him so much?”
“Yup. You don’t seem all that similar is all,” Nina said. “In the classes I have with him, he rarely talks, and when he does, he tends to be really condescending, even to the teachers. I mean, he’s not often wrong , but I still don’t like it,”
Was Kaz condescending? He seemed to think her insistence on following the rules was amusing at best, a bit of a hindrance at worst, but treated her as if she was competent. He was definitely better than teachers who didn’t seem to get that she didn't enjoy being questioned about her family history in front of the entire class because “The Suli are just so unique, Inej, why don’t you tell us about them!” or even the teachers tried to be helpful but just made her want to die when they would start trying to translate Kerch to Suli to “connect with her.” She knew they meant well, but it was still awful.
Kaz, for his part, never did much other than correct her writing mistakes on their presentation slides when needed or explained a very Kerch saying (she’d been driven mad by “What business?” for the first three months she’d been in school and when she found out from Kaz that it worked as a variety of greetings entirely depending on situation and tone, she didn’t know if she should be relieved or not that the five-year-olds she’d seen walking home from school weren’t actually attempting business deals), and he even tended to listen to her for certain subjects she was good at, like Physics and Geography.
So, he didn’t really feel condescending.
Plus, at this point, they’d probably spent more time with each other than they did at their respective homes since they started studying together outside of their pair-up class, and she felt more comfortable with him than with certain extended family.
“I guess he just doesn’t do that to me?” Inej shrugged, then ordered a cinnamon sugar bagel. She didn’t get a drink to ensure she’d be able to get some coffee later.
Was she becoming a coffee addict? She and Kaz might need outside intervention.
“No drink?” Nina asked. “Well, at least he treats you well, although I don’t see how anyone could do otherwise,”
“Uh, no, I don’t really need a drink, and he’s just… Kaz,”
Nina crossed her arms. Her sunglasses were still on her head, and her bright green eyes caught the light of the shop's ceiling lamps. Inej had been around dark brown eyes her entire life, so her, and Jesper’s, and Matthias’ eyes all still shocked her a bit. Wylan’s too, a new boy in their language class that was Kerch but seemed to have difficulty in reading and writing (he seemed to be very good at memorizing things, though, so he could hold his own in a classroom once he was comfortable enough).
Kaz’s eyes looked really dark normally but when they walked in the sunlight he’d sometimes turn to her and they would look like warm coffee, shining in a sort of ombre light brown or bronze to near-black, and she liked them a lot too.
She liked a lot of things about Kaz, actually, but that was a terrible idea.
“Of course you need a drink, you’ll regret it if you eat a lot of bread and don’t have something to wash it down. I’ll get you a smoothie,”
“It’s fine, really—”
“Hey, can I also get a pomegranate and strawberry smoothie?” Nina asked the worker, and Inej sighed. She wouldn’t argue, she decided. Plus, she liked pomegranates. And Jesper had told her she needed to let herself be pampered more.
But I am already , Inej wanted to tell him. My parents are paying for my education here, and this program is paying for my dorms. Kaz pays for my bus pass and sometimes for my coffee and he even got me a library card. Nina always brings me snacks. I have a lot. I shouldn’t take more when I don’t need it .
A few minutes later Inej had a smoothie and her bagel in a bag, and she and Nina stepped out into the cold Kerch air. Nina wore sunglasses regardless of rain or shine, but Inej couldn’t understand how she managed to see anything with so many clouds. Nina had already settled them back onto her face.
To her surprise, they almost ran right into Kaz and Jesper on the street.
“Inej!” Jesper grinned and slung an arm around her, which she’d slowly trained herself to recognize as just a friendly gesture that was nice when she wasn’t stressed. “I didn’t know you’d come out here!”
He winked at Nina. “Hey gorgeous,”
Nina lifted the sunglasses so he could see her winking back. “Hey handsome,”
Inej didn’t even blink. They did that every day in class, even though Matthias and Nina were dating now. It was kind of funny actually.
“Hey,” Inej raised a hand and waved it at Kaz, who was watching them with his head tilted slightly to the side, comfortable.
“Inej, you know Kaz?” Jesper asked.
“I feel like I should be asking you that,” Inej said. “You guys hang out?”
“Ahh yeah, we met at the beginning of Summer before school started so we hung out for a couple of months before classes. We only have a few together still but sometimes I’m able to wrangle him to come with me during lunch,”
“Ohh,” Inej nodded. She’d known Jesper had been in Kerch longer than the rest of them in the language class so it sort of made sense. That Kaz willingly hung out with him was a bit of a surprise, but then again Inej genuinely liked Nina and they didn’t seem to match up much either.
She looked Kaz over. He seemed a bit more rested than usual, so maybe he’d gotten a full night’s sleep, and to her amusement instead of coffee he had a chocolate boba drink in his hands. He noticed her noticing and rolled his eyes at her, and she smiled back at him.
“I think Matthias and Wylan are both doing student council stuff,” Jesper told Nina. “So we probably won’t see much of them this week,”
Nina sighed. “Why does my man have to be so responsible?”
“And why does the target of my affections have to be so busy?” Jesper joined her laments, and Inej looped herself out of his arm and went to stand next to Kaz.
“No coffee for us today, huh?” she asked, tapping their cups together. “Do you think we’re on our way to recovery?”
“We have a project due tomorrow morning so I’m thinking we’re going to crash back down tonight and drink enough caffeine to knock out a horse,” Kaz told her, and she laughed, bright and easy. She’d slept all of last night for once, and it was nice that both she and Kaz were well-rested. But the projects were absolute hell, and they’d definitely crash that night.
“Can I have some?” Inej nodded at his boba. “I haven’t ever actually tried it,”
“Don’t choke,” Kaz said, handing his cup over. They started walking without even really realizing they were, since that was a big chunk of what they did together, just walking from place to place picking up supplies (which could be anything from coffee to staples). They turned to slowly go back in the direction of the school.
Inej handed him her drink too and they traded for a bit. The tapioca balls shocked her at first but they were definitely fun. She should try to buy her own boba soon, as long as it didn’t get in the way of coffee.
“Oh!” Inej said. “Before I forget, it’s Winter Break in like a week and we still haven’t decided how we’re going to do that assignment we have to do over it. You’re going to be working aren’t you?”
“Yeah, I’ll be spending a lot of time at the Crow Club,” Kaz nodded. “What about you?”
“My parents decided it’d be too complicated for me to only be able to visit for a little bit, and the Suli don’t have the same holidays so there’s nothing I really need to travel back for,” Inej tried not to be too obvious about how upset it made her that she wouldn’t be seeing her family for at least three more months, more likely four or five. “But the dorms I’m in have a few students that stay, so I’ll be doing that,”
“Ahh,” Kaz nodded. “But you’re not friends with them, right?”
“Not really, I don’t talk to them much… And then Nina and Jesper and Matthias are all in different programs so I won’t really be seeing them. Jesper’s the only one going back to visit his dad, but Nina is apparently going to be staying in Southeastern Kerch with… I’m not even sure, she said it’s a teacher that wasn’t really a teacher that’s visiting, Genya something, and Matthias has been invited to go with her since he doesn’t have any other place to go. Wylan’s staying with his mom the entire break, too,”
“So everyone’s busy,” Kaz said. “You’ll have a lot of free time then?”
Inej shrunk a bit into her sweater. Would it be weird if she asked to hang out with him? “Yeah, I guess,”
“If it’s not too much of a den of vice, you can always come by the Crow Club,” Kaz said slowly, drinking a little bit of her smoothie.
Inej turned to look at him too quickly and her braid whipped around and slapped her in the face. Kaz had to take the straw out of his mouth because he’d begun to laugh.
“It’s not that funny,” she smacked his arm lightly, and Kaz shook his head. “You’ve seen that happen like a million times, you need to stop laughing about it eventually,”
“I just don’t get how you can forget when it’s happened so often,” Kaz said, grabbing the end of her braid and sliding it over her shoulder. “Shouldn’t you know not to whip your head around like that?”
“Oh shush, I keep it braided precisely so I don’t have to mind it, it’s not my fault it’s so difficult,” Inej said, feeling her face warm. Kaz was dumb. “ Anyway , you really don’t mind me hanging about the Crow Club?”
“Not at all. I can drop by your dorm and pick you up if you’d rather. It’s a bit hard to find it by yourself,”
Inej thought about looking out of her window to see Kaz across her building in the early morning sunlight, maybe relaxed, waiting for her. That was a lot.
“I think I’d like that best,” she said, and tried to push away the stubborn blush at her cheeks.
Suddenly, she remembered they’d been very much not alone, and turned around to see Nina and Jesper walking a few feet behind them and staring at her and Kaz with wide eyes.
“What?” she asked, and Kaz turned around to look at them.
“Oh. Uh, nothing,” Nina smiled, walking closer, Jesper right beside her. “You two really get along, huh?”
Inej shrugged. “Well, yeah,”
Kaz didn’t say anything, but he still had a small smile on his face. She took that as a good thing.
“I’m just glad to know Kaz doesn’t just talk to me,” Jesper said. “Although Inej is fantastic company, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by that,”
Kaz knocked her cup into her hand and they traded drinks once more, which definitely caught both Nina and Jesper’s eye, but neither of them said anything.
“I wouldn’t say I’m good company,” Inej said, taking a sip from the smoothie. “At most I’m just not loud,”
Kaz, Nina, and Jesper all turned to give her the most incredulous looks she’d ever seen.
“Inej, you’re a saint,” Nina said, leaning down to kiss her cheek. Inej gave her a flat look and wiped away the lip gloss left behind. She didn’t really mind the affection but the gloss was just too sticky.
“Not at all,” Inej said. “I’ll never be anything like a saint,”
That made them all raise their eyebrows, and Inej tried not to laugh at how synchronized they were.
Kaz reached out to grab her braid again, leaning in a bit closer to her face, and let the braid slowly slip through his gloved fingers. The sun wasn’t out, and his eyes looked somehow darker than black. “If the divine walked among the living, you’d be worshipped by us all,”
Then he turned around and walked towards the school, his cane tapping on the floor evenly.
“I—” Inej didn’t even know what to say about that.
“Since when is Brekker that smooth ?” Nina complained after a quiet moment of shock passed over them, putting her hands on her hips.
“My influence?” Jesper offered, his tone seemingly casual even though he was looking between Inej and Kaz with an expression that was pure confusion.
“Definitely not, that’s nothing like what you do,” Nina argued back.
Inej stood motionless for a bit longer, until one hand moved on its own accord to wrap the end of her braid around her fingers.
Damn it , she thought.
Damn it, I like Kaz Brekker .
She was going to need really strong coffee.
The Crow Club was so much Kaz’s aesthetic that she wasn’t even surprised to learn that he’d actually had a part in the design and had been working with the group that owned it, The Dregs, for a really long time.
She also wasn’t surprised that he would be taking it over when he graduated high school.
The tiles were red and black, as was most of the furniture, and the main accents were silver and dark brown. It was oddly beautiful, and it definitely felt dangerous.
“Anika, Pim, this is Inej,” Kaz told two of the workers that only seemed about a year or two older. “She’s going to be hanging around a bit for the next week, maybe after that too. Inej, this is Anika and Pim. Pim works as a bouncer and Anika helps run the ledgers and mail,”
“Pleasure to meet you,” Inej said, not knowing what else to do.
Both Anika and Pim looked her over, and she tried not to feel uncomfortable.
“Is she going to be working or what?” Pim asked.
Kaz shook his head. “She’s with me, and what I do is none of your business,”
Well, people were definitely right when they said that Kaz was prickly.
But Anika and Pim only nodded, although Inej could see them share a confused look, and said, “Alright, Boss,”
“Tell the others not to bother her or try to kick her out,” Kaz said, and they went on their way.
“Boss?” Inej asked.
“That’s what the younger workers call me,” Kaz shrugged, heading up some stairs. “The older ones just call me Brekker, but I basically run both groups. The only reason this place isn’t under my name is because I’m not of age yet, but I have as much power to fire and hire people as the actual owner. More, really. The older ones don't like it,”
Kaz, she decided, was a 30-year-old CEO stuck in a seventeen-year-old boy’s body.
“Alright then,” was all she said, but she kept looking around, even walking backwards up the stairs to continue to be able to study the floor of the den. There weren’t too many patrons yet, but it was early in the morning.
Speaking of, Kaz had waited in front of her dorm building, and some of the other kids staying, most of them a bit younger, had been looking out of the window and giggling in a little group about the “cute boy in the black sweater across the street.” When one of them mentioned he had a cane, another had just said, “So he must just be rich or something, he’s way too young to actually need it,” and that had been enough of that and Inej had shooed them away, displeased with their take. When they’d realized he was there for her , the giggling only got worse and Inej ended up climbing out of her dorm window to avoid having to walk through the group of them waiting outside her door to ask her questions.
Kaz, for his part, had taken her jumping out of a third-story window and then walking across the street like it was nothing (well, it wasn’t anything, not to her) very well and had only asked her if she preferred windows over doors. The answer was yes, which made him laugh as he handed her some morning coffee.
And now they were at the Crow Club and she was stepping into his office. It was comfortable, maturely furnished if a bit dark, and she immediately moved to occupy the window sill. She didn’t feel out of place at all, and Kaz didn’t seem to mind her being in his space either.
“I have some finances to take care of, and then a shift watching over the tables,” Kaz told her. “But if you don’t mind, you can get started on your part of the project and I’ll join you later?”
“Actually, can I go with you when you go on shift?” Inej asked. The whole point of her taking up Kaz on his offer was to avoid being completely alone, so she’d rather stick with him even if the only thing he was doing was making sure people didn’t cheat at the tables.
Kaz blinked at her. “If you’d like,”
They settled down to work.
It turned out that Inej was excellent at watching the tables, and for the rest of the week, she joined Kaz during his shifts. The fact that she was completely silent helped her be able to make her way around without being noticed, which Kaz both appreciated and was confused by, but she didn’t know how to explain it either.
He kept trying to offer her pay since she had actually found some cheaters, but Inej felt awkward taking his money, which made him roll his eyes to high heaven.
Their sleep schedules were totally destroyed, because they regularly stayed up past midnight, either working, doing shifts, just talking in his office or a coffee shop, or playing card games, of which Kaz knew way too many, and all of which Inej mostly sucked at. They drank coffee most mornings and at night, but they soon found out they didn’t need it because surprise surprise, they both stayed up late regardless. Maybe they were insomniacs. Either way, it sucked alone but it was a lot better if they at least had someone to hang out with.
Kaz wasn’t very friendly with most of the other workers at the Crow Club. Mainly he talked to Anika, Pim, a guy called Roeder, and an ex-navy member called Specht, but he still kept them all at a distance. They all seemed to really like him though, which she thought was funny.
When someone asked Kaz about Jesper, she was surprised to learn that Jesper actually visited Kaz at the Crow Club often, and she was relieved to know he actually had some company before she’d come alone.
Inej was still tired most days, but it wasn’t so bad.
And coffee at midnight was now more a comfort than something strange.
“Why are so many final projects all going on at the same time?” she grumbled, and Kaz agreed with her under his breath, also annoyed.
They were back at the public library, and the temperature was slowly warming up in Ketterdam so she no longer felt the need to wear two or three sweaters (she had made it through the entire Winter without buying a proper coat, even though her new group of friends had all said they wouldn’t mind helping her get one). It was still chilly for her though, but it was in a way that made her think she was alive rather than freezing to death.
Kaz leaned back in his chair. He rarely ever stretched even after working long hours, while Inej preferred, now that she was comfortable enough, to do random yoga breaks. They amused Kaz, who thought that her coming up with her essay topic for her Kerch history class while supporting all of her weight with her forearms was entertaining because all he could see from where he sat at the table were her legs and feet moving along to her angry rants about how dull Kerch history was.
But on occasion, he would lift up his arms and lean back, and his midriff would be exposed, and Inej would die just a little bit. He was fit. She was looking respectfully.
Kaz acted like he didn’t know she was looking and she acted like she didn’t know Kaz knew, and Kaz acted like he didn’t know she knew that he knew. It was fine.
It was getting late.
“Do you want to wrap up for the night?” Inej asked, already knowing he’d agree.
When he did, they slowly put everything away and went out to wait for the bus. A windfront had come in from the West and blown away the clouds over the city, so for once she could look up and appreciate the stars far above them. Kaz had told her that Kerch, in an impressive feat of self-control, had slowly started limiting the amount of artificial light that could be used at night so that the stars could be seen, since they had been so important to the country when it had first started it’s trade businesses and navigation was done through the night sky.
They weren’t as beautiful as the stars she grew up in on the back of trucks and RV’s and campers traveling the Ravkan coast and countryside, free of human-made light for miles and miles around, but they were still striking.
Neither she nor Kaz talked much on the way back, but when they reached the bus stop close to the school they both got off and instead of heading home, they went on a walk.
Sometimes she worried about how much Kaz pushed himself with his cane, walking almost everywhere and with Kerch’s cold and muggy weather, but Kaz seemed to enjoy the walks and she enjoyed the fresh night air that reminded her of celebrations and bonfires with her family.
“Hey Kaz?” she asked, and he hummed in acknowledgment.
“Why do you think the teacher paired us together?”
Kaz tilted his head to the side, a light version of what she and Jesper called his scheming face.
“Probably just because we were both so quiet she didn’t think we’d work with anyone louder,” he admitted. “I don’t really think it was deeper than that, since she honestly barely minds us. Some quiet kids were placed with louder ones to have them talk a bit more, but we both don’t really participate in class much and she doesn’t even seem to mind,” he turned to give her a half-smile. “Maybe it was because we both looked so tired though,”
“ These two are dead on their feet, so instead of inconveniencing another student I’ll put them together so they can die without me having to reorganize the pairs ,” Inej parodied the teacher’s voice. “I guess that makes sense,”
Kaz chuckled. “The day we got paired up was a while ago. You know, I don’t think you’ve shown me a single knife trick,”
Inej stopped short. “I hadn’t realized. Huh. I don’t carry most of my knives with me though and usually we’re studying so it just hadn’t crossed my mind,”
“Most of your knives?”
“I have fourteen, I think,” Inej put her hand on the inside of her boot. “I carry one with me, see?”
She pulled out a switchblade and flipped it open with a flick of her wrist. The blade was long and serrated. “It’s not for tricks though, just for safety,”
“No one is safe but you with that in your hand,” Kaz observed, looking at the blade. “Knife enthusiast, then?”
“I guess,” Inej flipped it open and closed a few times. “Knives, acrobatics, coffee, sweaters, cinnamon. That’s me,”
“That’s you,” Kaz echoed. “I used to carry some knives with me but nowadays I usually just use my cane if anyone’s giving me trouble,”
Inej had seen Kaz use his cane as a weapon only once when a couple of drunk men had bothered them by their bus stop. She was pretty sure their wrists were broken and one of them might’ve had a concussion. Kaz had been pretty calm and collected the entire ordeal though.
The cane could certainly do some damage.
Inej slipped the knife back into its elastic inside her boots. “I’ll show you a trick sometime. You can do card magic and I can do knife tricks,”
Kaz took that as an invitation to make the folder she was holding disappear from her hand and reappear inside his bag without her even realizing it, but she couldn’t even get mad. His favorite trick seemed to be making things disappear and reappear randomly.
“By the way,” Kaz said. “You’re getting paid for the last few shifts that the Crow Club this Saturday,”
“Nooo,” Inej groaned, bumping her shoulder very lightly against his. Well, his arm in general because she was actually too short to reach his shoulder. “You know you don’t have to pay me, right? I’m happy enough just spending time with you,”
Her mouth clicked shut right after, and she turned away from him, face burning. She hadn’t meant to say that.
She was sure Kaz already knew that she liked him, and she wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t exactly mind . He certainly spent a lot of time looking at her (and after her, making sure she’s eaten, and she does the same for him), but it didn’t make her uncomfortable at all.
Kaz didn’t say anything for a while but he walked a little bit closer to her.
They didn’t go their separate ways to their homes, and eventually just found a bench near a small park and sat down.
“It’s late,” she said, and he sighed. Her ears and hands were really cold now, and a soft breeze carried the tendrils of her hair that had escaped her braid.
They sat a bit closer together and looked up at the sky.
The next morning, Nina gasped when she saw Inej’s face. “Inej, you look like you haven’t slept in a week !”
Inej barely had so she didn’t disagree and just slumped against her friend.
Jesper walked in behind Inej, took one look at her, and went, “You too?”
“Kaz?” she assumed.
“Yeah. You guys have matching eyebags, darker than the Fold,”
Inej snorted at that. “Sure, Jes,”
He grinned at her, but was obviously worried. “You guys okay, though? I know the final projects are a lot, but you’re both pretty on top of your schoolwork so I can’t imagine you need to stay up all night, every night,”
Inej sighed and sank into her seat. “We just… don’t sleep a lot. Neither one of us. We’re tired, but except for when we pass out from pure exhaustion, we don’t really sleep at night? We get some power naps in,”
Nina frowned. “I can probably help with that, you know? Technically I’m not supposed to offer to adjust or change or anything but if you need a rise in your melatonin levels...”
Inej shook her head. “I don’t want you getting in trouble,” she said. “And Kaz would probably never agree to it. I’ll just figure it out,”
“Well, can I at least try covering up your eyebags? I’m a passable Tailor…”
Inej smiled at Nina. “It’s alright, really. Plus, leaving only Kaz looking like he needs to take a hundred-year nap isn’t really fair,”
Nina’s mouth twisted, clearly wanting to offer more help, but she let it go.
It was hot.
It was awful.
If Inej couldn’t sleep in the quiet loneliness of the Ketterdam cold, well she certainly couldn’t sleep in the quiet loneliness of the Ketterdam heat .
It was humid. So, so humid. Ravka could get hot, but not in that awful, muggy way that made her feel like she was breathing water instead of air.
For the first time in the entire year, she shucked off her sweaters and went to school in just a tank top and some shorts, which made her feel awkward and exposed, but it was just too damn hot.
Nina was in a dress with an open midriff that certainly didn’t fit the dress code, and had bought one of those hand-held motorized fans with candy in them they sell kids at the market, and had a big cup of icy juice. Inej herself was trying out iced coffee for the first time, and it was god awful but she didn’t have much of a choice.
“The heat got to you too?” Nina asked her, studying her unusual outfit as they walked inside the school and let the struggling air conditioner fighting the heat wash over them.
“I’m dying,” Inej said, walking straight to a water fountain and dabbing the back of her neck and her chest with some of the water. “The air is way too hot, I feel like I’m drowning,”
“I wonder how Kaz is handling the heat?” Nina said. “He covers up as much as you do. Plus, with those gloves, I can’t imagine it’s going well…”
It’s not going well, she thought, because Kaz hadn’t come to school.
She’s left to sit alone in class, realizing that neither of them had missed a single day of school. It was bizarre and lonely, and for some reason a lot of people were looking at her. She hadn’t realized how much of a shield Kaz sometimes was.
When she left the room a boy stopped her and asked for her number, and she realized that Kaz not being there mixed with her being more exposed than usual put her in a position she did not enjoy.
Inej was a good student. She really was. She did almost all her work on time and generally got full marks.
But she couldn’t stay.
Inej didn’t go to her second-period class and instead snuck out the back door and headed out through the streets of Ketterdam. Between her outings with Nina and Jesper, her late-night walks with Kaz, and her own hours spent exploring when the dorms made her feel both so little and too big to exist, she’d mapped a lot of the city inside her head, and finding the Crow Club was no longer any trouble.
She eyed the main entrance and decided against it, instead walking around the building before she found Kaz’s window, and she started to climb the wall.
Usually she only climbed in and out of her own window, but Kaz’s wasn’t any harder.
There was the problem of it being locked. Kaz had mentioned he knew how to pick locks, which was something she decided not to judge because she knew how to kill a man with a letter opener if pressed, but he hadn’t gotten very far in teaching her to do it too.
She struggled by the window for a good ten minutes, cursing the heat and cursing Kaz, but eventually she managed to get it open and rolled into the room, a bit sluggish.
“This heat,” she whispered to herself. “Can escort itself the hell out,”
She had more choice words to say, but she felt a bit awkward cursing to herself in Kaz’s office, and the door opened right after anyway.
Kaz stood at the door in his Crow Club uniform, which was just a long sleep black button-up, black slacks, his gloves, and a red tie. Sometimes he also had a red waistcoat too.
“Inej?” he said, surprised. “How did you get…” he glanced at the window. “Ah.”
“Ah,” Inej echoed. “How aren’t you dying in the heat? It’s super hot in here as well,”
“We focused all the air conditioning on the tables, so it's pretty cool downstairs, but it’s hot everywhere else,” Kaz loosened his tie and shucked off his gloves. She’d seen his bare hands only a handful of times, and was careful to school her expression.
But she couldn’t keep her face neutral when he also unbuttoned his shirt and slid it off. She had to focus on something else. The mirror he had on the wall reflected his back, and that did nothing to help matters.
Her face was too hot now as well.
“What are you doing here?” Kaz asked, looking through a small fridge. He handed her a can of soda, which she immediately pressed to her forehead, then her neck. “You should be at school,”
“So should you,” she grumbled. “I left right after first period. You know, you haven’t missed a single day of school? It was really strange,”
Kaz raised a brow. “The air conditioning at school fails every other hour, and I can’t exactly take off my shirt comfortably there either. Better to take some shifts at the Crow Club,”
“So your attendance always goes down during the end of the school year?”
“Basically,” Kaz opened his soda and sat near the open window, taking her outfit in for the first time. “Ketterdam’s Summer isn’t treating you very well either, is it? You can work downstairs with me if you’d like, unless you plan to go back to school,”
Inej thought about the people who had been looking at her all morning. “I’ll… stay. I’ve had to talk to more people today than all year because of the heat,” she gestured at her clothes half-heartedly. “This doesn’t help,”
Kaz caught her meaning quickly and his face darkened. “Did people bother you?”
“Nothing bad,” she admitted, then sat near him and put her legs up on the window sill. “I tried iced coffee,”
“It’s disgusting. I couldn’t finish it and gave it to Nina,”
Kaz laughed, although he still looked a bit concerned. Inej opened her soda and took a large gulp.
“Coooold,” she sighed. “Thanks for the soda,”
Back at home they’d rarely ever bought fizzy drinks, and when it got hot they tended to make juice and buy a lot of ice. Passion fruit, her beloved...
“No problem,” he mumbled, and Inej realized he was switching between looking at her neck and shoulders and arms, and outside the window, then nervously looking back at her and then away once more.
She tried to hide her smile. She didn’t really mind Kaz looking at her (appreciating, maybe?). He was also “looking respectfully,” like that meme she sometimes mentally used to make herself not freak out about liking how Kaz looked. Somehow he was shyer than her.
Plus she was fighting the urge to ogle him as well so she figured they were even.
Kaz got up and found a fan he then plugged in, and their chatting slowed.
Before she knew it, they were asleep.
They woke several hours later, Inej with several texts from Nina and Jesper on her phone, and the school day was already over. It was still too hot, but it seemed like she and Kaz had slept through the worst of it.
“How is it still this hot?” Inej muttered. “How are there three more weeks left of the school year in this heat ?”
“And then two more months of it for the rest of Break,” Kaz said, then stopped organizing some files. “Actually, you’re going back to Ravka for the Summer, right?”
“Oh, I totally forgot to tell you,” Inej smiled up at him and the heat didn’t do him any favors by pinkening his skin, because she could still see a blush rise along his neck. “My family will be here for a couple of weeks first. We’ve got a hotel reservation set up since I can’t stay in the dorms for the break, but they’re going to get to know Ketterdam a bit before I head back to Ravka for the rest of Summer. So you aren’t rid of me yet,”
Kaz blinked at her and seemingly without thinking said, “I’d never want to be rid of you?”
They stared at each other for a long moment and Inej felt her mouth trying to decide whether she wanted to smile, make an ‘O’ of surprise, or simply just fall open.
The fan was so loud.
Kaz looked away first. “So you’ll have two more weeks after the year finishes up. Where do you plan on taking your family?”
Inej took the offered branch but still thought Damn it, Kaz .
“To be honest my first thought was the Crow Club, but I didn’t think a gambling hall would be their scene,”
She’d finally stopped fighting Kaz about getting paid for her shifts, and she had to admit that it was a lot nicer having pocket money that wasn’t just what her parents could afford to send. Plus, Kaz paid really well (and, she thinks, might just be giving her bonuses for the hell of it, because one of the bonus checks had been memo-ed Being Inej Ghafa , which had made her laugh in her dark dorm room when she’d seen it.
“I can see how they might not consider this a reputable place for you to be in…” Kaz trailed off. “Hey, what do your parents know about your stay in Ketterdam?”
“Well, they know about you,” Inej said. “They know I hang out with you a lot, and Nina and Jesper, and Wylan and Matthias. They know how most of my classes are going, that it was really cold and now suddenly it’s been really hot. They know I drink coffee now and my mom keeps laughing at me during calls whenever I try explaining to her that I’ve tried a new one and it was awful,”
“Do they know that you don’t sleep or that you work at a gambling hall?”
“Um. They know I stay up late, but they don’t know how much,” Inej shrugged. “I was having trouble sleeping back at home too. And they know I have a job with a friend but not the details. It makes them nervous so they switch between ‘tell us everything, we need to know you’re safe’ and ‘wait no just tell me you’re safe, if you give me more details I’ll have nightmares made up from them,’”
She smiled at that. Her parents were so sweet. If only she wasn’t as messed up as she was.
“Your parents sound nice,” Kaz ventured.
“Would you like to meet them?” she asked. “They asked if they could meet my friends. I was going to ask you at school, but you weren’t there. Nina and the others all said yes since they have a bit of time before we all disperse for the Summer,”
Kaz stood, almost uncomfortable, on the other side of the desk. “I’m not sure they’d like to meet me,”
Inej frowned. “You’re perfectly civil when you want to be. And trust me, they’ll only really care about how you treat me over anything else. One of my uncles has a criminal record in like three or four different provinces in Ravka—”
“What did he—”
“Stole a goat, a llama, and was apparently part of a murder-robbery but no one can prove it—”
Kaz fought back a smile for a moment but then she grinned at him and it came through.
“Trust me, they’ll like you just fine. And I’ll tell them not to be too friendly. They’re the hugging and kissing sort,” Inej made a face. “I don’t think they understand the a firm handshake is just fine manners of the Kerch, but I’ll do my best,”
“You always do,” Kaz said, leaning his hands against the desk. He was still shirtless, and the corded muscle of his arms distracted her. “I’ll be meeting your parents then,”
She didn’t bother trying not to seem excited. “Yeah, it’ll be nice,”
Kaz glanced at the time. It was getting to be late in the afternoon. “Usually I’d continue in the Crow Club all day to stay cool, but we can head out instead. Want ice cream?”
“Why do I have the feeling you eat coffee ice cream?”
The smile he gave her was crooked and stupid and she liked it too much. “Guilty as charged,”
Kaz, apparently, wore loose cotton shirts when it got that hot, although still with long sleeves. She didn’t get how he was making it in the heat, but just accepted he must have some internal temperature control superpowers.
They got ice cream and walked past different fountains that were getting fired up for the first time in a year, and even passed by a few different parts of the harbor before turning back into the city’s canals. Kaz infinitely preferred the bus over the canal boats, but he was still steadier on them than she was from years of experience.
It got late, and then it got even more late, and the air was still warm, albeit a bit less sticky and thick. Thanks to their nap, neither she nor Kaz were sleepy, which posed the usual problem.
They steered close to her dorm building and Inej paused.
“Kaz,” she ventured. “With help, would you be able to climb a building’s wall?”
Kaz looked down at his bad leg. “Well, I used to be able to do it definitely. It was getting down that messed me up,”
She acted like he hadn’t just handed her a huge bit of information. “Think you can still do it?”
“Alright,” she nodded, then pulled him along by the sleeve. “We’re sneaking in through my window,”
A half-hour and a slightly sore Kaz later, they were lying on her bed and staring up at the stickers she’d put on the ceiling in an effort to make it more interesting to look at. Kaz had never been in her dorm, and neither had anyone else, really. She was starting to think maybe inviting the boy she liked to come visit her room at nearly eleven at night and sneaking him in through the window would inspire some assumptions she couldn’t even call outlandish, but Kaz seemed content to just lay next to her.
“I’m not tired,” she whispered to him.
“Neither am I,”
“I haven’t had any coffee today,’
“Neither have I,”
Insomniacs, the two of them. Never getting enough sleep yet pushing their bodies to the brink, drinking coffee to cover up the fact that they hadn’t slept, either to wake themselves up or as a crutch to lean on when asked why they hadn’t gotten enough sleep.
They were disasters, albeit subtle ones.
Inej could feel his gloved hand was laying near her and slowly inched her own hand towards it. For a moment, his hand disappeared, and she didn’t dare look as she heard him shift. Then it was again next to her own, but closer, and when they finally met she tried her best not to start when she realized it was his bare hand, without the glove.
They threaded their fingers together, and they stayed like that for a long time, side by side but touching only at their shoulders and hands, laying over her covers, their eyes wide open although overall at peace.
The clock next to her bed changed from 11:59 to 12:00, and far away the bell tower the Ketterdam citizens all swore by was clanging 12 echoing times.
“It’s midnight,” Inej turned to Kaz, who turned to look at her as well. Their noses were almost touching.
“Want coffee?” he offered, and she could hear from his tone that he was only half-joking.
“You laugh, but I have instant coffee and a microwave,”
A little later they both had their own mugs, and they sat on her bed with their backs against the wall.
“Coffee at midnight,” Kaz said.
“Coffee at midnight,” she agreed.
With his free hand he slowly grasped her own once more.
For once, she wasn’t painfully awake, but blessedly so.
They fell asleep, still sitting, an hour later.
“Remember this?” Kaz asked as he took out a paper from one of his many folders. It was two in the morning on the second to last day of school, and they were cleaning out all their papers on the floor of the Crow Club.
Inej peered at the paper. It was the sheet of get-to-know-you questions from their first week of class.
“Oh, I think I have mine somewhere,” she riffled through her notebooks until the paper fell out, and she unfolded it.
Her Kerch had definitely gotten better.
“I remember you told me you’d never drink coffee like me,” Kaz said, then pointedly looked at her cup of black coffee on the desk.
“What a bad influence you are, Kaz,” she teased, not at all upset that she’d been wrong at the beginning of the year.
“I’m the bad influence? You have me climbing walls and kickstarting a knife collection,”
Inej laughed. “You have a point,”
She scooted to sit right next to him and compared their answers. “We barely knew each other then,”
They knew a lot about each other now, sometimes from accidental sharing and sometimes on purpose. He’d long since figured out her nightmares, and now she was in the process of learning his.
They were both also still very tired, but it was so much easier with someone to lean against, someone who didn’t mind that you were tired, someone who would reply to a text sent at three in the morning with an invite to take a walk, or who would offer you a sip of coffee wordlessly and without judgment when you walked up to school with bags under your eyes.
Saints , she thought. Saints. Kaz and she really were a pair.
She hadn’t kissed him, but she knew she would eventually. Or he would kiss her. Either was fine.
“Hopefully we’ll have more classes with each other next year,” Kaz said
“We probably will. And, well, we can probably change things to make sure we do,” Inej said, then had a minor crisis about maybe she really being the bad influence, but figured it was more like she just knew Kaz would agree.
“Hmm,” Kaz leaned towards her until their sides were barely touching. He was stiff for just a moment before slowly relaxing. She wasn’t sure yet how to make it so that he was always relaxed, but he touched her more than basically everyone, so what she received still felt like a lot. And she didn’t really need him to be super touchy at all, just available to her.
She could feel his nose and mouth lightly against her neck, and even the fan they had blasting air directly at them couldn’t keep her face from warming up.
Inej was tired, and she was happy despite it.
Chat: Coffee At Midnight
Are you awake.
Kaz it’s three in the morning.
Yes I am.
Only midnight for you, though, right?
I hate time differences.
But yeah, midnight.
Guess what I’m doing.
Coffee at midnight.
Let me make a mug.
Might take a moment since everyone else is asleep.
Your family sleeps too much .
No, you and I are just insane.
How’s the coffee?
I miss your coffee maker.
Well, I miss you.
Coffee at midnight. Three in the morning. Same difference.
Miss you too.
Coffee at midnight is better with you.
Call? Then we can sort of have it together.
Kaz is calling Coffee At Midnight...