Kaz Brekker had been hurt many, many times in his life. Many. So many, and so gravely, that it was a miracle he was still alive.
He was good at handling it on his own by now. He’d grown to almost prefer it. Fewer hands trying to touch his skin, fewer people asking unwarranted questions, and usually fewer people that he didn’t care for, as well.
Then, there was Inej today. Inej, who had climbed in through the window after her voyage to find him in… a state. Bleeding from a wound to his side and already barely strung together. It was not a good week for Kaz Brekker, this week. It was the anniversary of another very bad week, which automatically set it up to be a shitty time for him.
Usually, he made a point to not go out this week, if he could help it. But this morning, he’d been summoned to deal with some territorial issue with one of the rival gangs--honestly, he was far enough into his mind that he couldn’t remember which one--and he’d simply had no choice. At some point, he’d gotten himself caught in the crossfire and ended up with a knife in his side.
It was a relatively small knife, so it wasn’t that bad of a wound, but it still hurt like hell. And it didn’t help that he was forced to keep his chest tight and tense to prevent sobs from ripping out of him as he made his way home, and then continue that well after climbing in through his window at the Slat.
Lately, after injuries like this, he’d make his way to Wylan’s. It was closer the the Slat more often than not, and they always had better supplies for fixing these types of wounds. He had a strong suspicion that the house had only recently been stocked with those types of items, around the first time that he’d gone and tended to his wounds at their house. They hadn’t necessarily seen the wound, but he’d warned them of the lack of bandages in their bathroom after he’d used them, so they knew he’d been there.
That was one of the times that he had been grateful that nobody had tried to comfort him. It felt better, like he wasn’t weak, like he wouldn’t fall apart at any moment, like he wasn’t fraying at the seams.
He did feel that way right now, though. This is exactly why he chose to avoid the Van Eck’s altogether. Jesper would have tried to hug him if he saw the hardly concealed tears, Wylan would have tried to comfort him with blankets or cookies, Marya would have made him a cup of tea. It would have been all too much.
Which is why when he heard the window open, he audibly groaned, and he didn’t try to hide it. If Inej was so offended by his reaction to her arrival, he could always blame it on the trouble threading the needle to stitch his side.
“Well, someone is chipper this morning,” she called. “I came in early, I thought you’d be glad.”
He heard the thump of her feet against the floor as she hopped down from the window, even though he couldn’t see her from the bathroom. She’d done that on purpose--made noise so as not to startle him. The part of him that still had the ability to be surprised by her thanked her for that small mercy.
He was not thrilled, though, as she walked over to the bathroom and peeked her head through the open door. She looked as if she was about to surprise him, with a somewhat mischievous smirk and both hands on the doorframe.
Every piece of that act fell apart as she saw his bare chest, the wound on his side, and the thread and needle in his hands. “What happened?” she asked, alarmed.
“Fucking Liddies happened,” he grunted, trying to keep his voice even through a mask of anger.
She nodded sympathetically, watching as his hands shook as he continued trying to thread the needle. “Can I?” she asked, nodding towards that one of his many current problems.
“I can handle it,” he all but spat, not looking up to face her.
He did see out of the corner of his eye as she raised an eyebrow, holding out her hand to him. With only a sigh, he closed his eyes and bowed his head, placing the needle into her open hand with the thread on top of it.
It made him feel weak, doing it. But there was no way he could get it threaded with his gloves on, and the wet, sticky feeling of blood was far too close to the feeling of…
“Do you want me to do it?” Inej asked softly, holding out the threaded needle to him for him to take.
His breath caught in his throat. Nobody had asked to tend to his wounds in a long while, and since Jordie had died, nobody he particularly cared about had done so. It was an odd feeling; one he could not particularly place. He couldn’t decide if it was good or bad, if this was her idea of telling him he was weak or her idea of caring for him.
He hoped it would be her idea of caring for him. He hoped. And yet, no matter her intent, he would not be able to accept her offer.
“I can do it,” he denied, attempting to keep his voice even without yelling. It did not work, not in any real way. “I can’t--not this week, I--letting you. It would be too much.”
“For your heart, or for your mind?” she asked, tilting her head to the side in question.
Both, he wanted to scream. Both. All of it, he thought. And then… “Heart,” he mumbled, looking down at the counter. “I can do it,” he repeated.
She nodded once, her hands falling to her sides. “I’ll wait for you outside, then,” she said softly, a quiet assurance, before walking out of the bathroom.
He held his position for a moment; head bowed as he stood by the counter, taking a deep breath. He then closed the door, and he prayed that his quiet cries as he attempted to stitch himself back together were not audible on the other side of it.
His prayers did not work.
He opened the door only after the quiet sniffles stopped, stepping out and tossing the rag he’d used to wipe the blood off of the floor into his laundry hamper. It was only after that that his eyes found Inej, sitting cross-legged on his bed, her eyes red and puffy, as well, with a few stray tears rolled down her cheeks.
“Are you okay?” she asked, looking over at him from the bed.
He groaned again then, looking down and poking at his wound through his shirt. “I thought I got all of it, I--”
“Not your cut, Kaz,” she corrected with a sniff. He looked up at her, his hand falling back down to his side.
“That door isn’t soundproofed,” he said quietly, swallowing hard. “I need to get that fixed.”
She shook her head, tears welling up in her eyes again. “You don’t need to fix it,” she said, choking on tears, holding out her arms. “Come here,” she whispered, so quietly that it was hardly even audible.
He just stood for a moment, head tilted to the side. He didn’t understand why she was upset, really. If she wanted a hug, she normally would’ve stood, so that neither of them would have an issue with panic related to being that close and not-standing. Still, he walked over, cane creaking against one of his loose floorboards; he was out of it enough that he’d forgotten about that one, which only made Inej’s tears flow harder. He hadn’t known she had an issue with squeaky floorboards, but he’d need to get it fixed later, too.
He got to the bed, standing to the side of it and looking down at her as she held her arms up again, as if waiting for him to reach down and swoop her up. He wasn’t sure he could do that, now that he was hurt--and boy, did he hurt--but if that was what she asked for with her words in a moment, he would find a way to attempt it.
“Will you sit down?” she asked, still reaching up to him. He still couldn’t quite figure out her reasoning, but he put his cane against the edge of the bed and sat down anyway. “Can I hold you for a few minutes?”
Yes, that same voice as before screamed. Yes, please. Be the first in years, please.
“Why?” he asked, doing his best to hold back a sniffle as he watched her.
This reaction was akin to the one she had to his misstep a few moments ago, the tears beginning to flow faster once again. “Because you seem like you could use to be taken care of,” she said softly, reaching out for his still-gloved hands.
“I don’t need to,” he said quietly but sternly. “I can care for myself,” he reaffirmed, keeping his hands firmly planted on the bed on either side of him.
She nodded almost frantically, wiping at her eyes with her sleeve-covered wrist. “I know,” she said, “I know. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not nice to have someone else do it, sometimes,” she whispered, looking at him with almost pleading eyes.
Oh, how he wanted it. On this week, on this day; ten years since the last time someone had tried to do that for him--at least, in any large way. Inej had tried to help him before, to stitch up his wounds or make sure he ate. She’d always paid extra mind to making sure he was alright when they tried something new, like hugging, or when she kissed him the first time.
But never like this. Never this kind of affection when he was already hurting.
He couldn’t find the words to say anything in acceptance or denial, so he just nodded once. She smiled her sad, soft smile at him and moved, sitting slouched but propped against the wall at the head of the bed before making grabby hands for him.
He couldn’t bring himself to smile back, so he just moved forward and all but fell into her arms, his head going to her shoulder.
Almost immediately, as if a triggered reaction, he could not contain his tears any longer. He was suddenly very, very glad to know that she would not kill him now, like she hadn’t when he was passed out in a prison wagon. She’d certainly had other opportunities, as well.
“Shhh,” she whispered softly, reaching up to run a hand through his hair (paying mind not to touch his skin), and this only made his problem worse. Very quickly, he was choking on sobs into her shirt and very likely leaving a tear spot below his eyes, but he couldn’t bring himself to move. “It’s alright,” she whispered, continuing with her little movements through his hair.
He’s not sure when she switched from speaking Kerch to Suli, but it almost made him want to cry harder. She’d always said that she found Kerch to be too rough of a language--that it had no flow to it, that it was harsh and jagged and too cruel of a way to speak. For her to switch to Suli, despite knowing that he could not understand her… she was trying. To take care of him.
However, he did not know how to explain to her that she would not be able to ease this pain. Maybe she could help him to recover physically, to lie with him until his wound healed into a thin scar, but she would not be able to heal what was wrong inside of him. As she’d asked before, his heart, or his mind. She had not included his body. It was simply not a part of the question; he was already hurt, but she knew the stakes of that injury. There were other parts of him to work on, but this particular wound… he would never heal. Not any more than he already had.
There were days when he thought it might be possible to ease some of the pain that came with it, to forget almost entirely about his past and focus on his future. But now, after this week, he was certain he could not ever do that, not all the way. The only proper treatment for this kind of internal wound would be to have his brother back; it would be the bandage that would close the wound. But his brother was long dead, and he was still standing on the shore as a broken man.
She held tight to that broken man, even as he cried and cried more than he had in years. “You’re okay,” she whispered softly in between the words she spoke to him in Suli, a little bit of familiarity among her foreign words of comfort.
Eventually, a bit of time after his body stopped wracking with each of his cries, he started talking. He was still pressed against her chest, making sure to remain lower on the bed so that she still had any physical advantage over him, at least in terms of positioning. It would help her to not panic, which meant more to him than any comfort she was offering him.
“It was this week,” he sniffled, voice still wavering and shaking. “Today, I think, but I don’t-” another sob broke it’s way out, and he found himself clinging tighter to her, attempting to press his face deeper into her neck.
“Oh, Kaz,” she whispered, her own voice breaking as she held onto him, one hand on the back of his head and running through his hair, the other resting on his upper back over his shirt. “I’m so sorry, my love.”
For the first time, he did not feel angered by that apology. Only defeated, only exhausted. He was just tired, now, and hurt. Tired and hurt felt like very simple words to describe such complicated feelings, that was for sure.
“I don’t remember what day it was,” he said after he pulled himself together once more. “Can you believe that? He was my brother, and I don’t--”
“Stop,” she whispered, pulling him closer to her, as if to shut him up. “None of that. You were sick, it’s not fair to want you to remember anything beyond what you already do.”
He shook his head as much as he could with it pressed up against her skin, her hair tickling the back of his neck. “He was my brother,” he practically sobbed. “I should know, I--”
And then she was pulling him closer again, mumbling soft, sweet words to him and holding him close enough that he wouldn't continue talking, but not tight enough that he couldn’t pull back if he wanted. “You don’t need to know, Kaz. I’m sure you do plenty to remember him, anyway. You don’t need to know the day,” she whispered against the side of his head.
“I don’t do anything to remember him,” he mumbled, his voice sounding choked and broken even through the fabric of Inej’s shirt.
She seemed to consider this for a moment, as her hands both slowed where they rubbed gently against the back of his head and his upper back. “We can go lay flowers on the water tonight, if you’d like,” she whispered, pressing a gentle kiss to his temple.
He was reminded suddenly of when they were little, as boys picking flowers by the lake. They’d bring them to the shop owners in town, even when they could only find enough to give them each one rather than a small bundle. Some of the older business owners in town would affectionately call them the ‘little flower boys’ for it, despite knowing their names.
A fitting remembrance that would be, for a little flower boy who hadn’t made it.
He couldn’t bring up the courage to tell Inej that story. Not today, and maybe not ever, after tonight. For her to know the meaning of it would be to lay down a piece of armor far too large.
So instead, he just buried his face further into her shirt. “Okay,” he said, as he began to cry again. It reminded him of all the times he’d throw a tantrum as a child, usually out of pure exhaustion, blubbering at his father as he’d begin to calm down.
That always made Jordie angry; it was one of the few things Kaz did that could, when he was still alive. He’d stomp over to him when he was whining, his lip trembling as he made truly exaggerated, pathetic noises to show just how upset he was. He would crouch down or kneel in front of him to look him in the eyes and stick his finger in his face. Usually, what he’d say was to the effect of ‘Stop it’, with a tone that rarely came out of him, one fitting of an older brother. Occasionally, he’d take Kaz gently by the arm, and he’d say ‘If you don’t stop making that noise, I’m not going to play outside with you’. Kaz would never stop, and Jordie would always play with him anyway.
He would have paid all of his kruge to have his brother tell him to stop whining right then. But his brother wasn’t there.
So, rather than get yelled at, he laid there with Inej until he fell asleep. He woke up later with his face swollen and his eyes violently red, but he felt much less… full. Less like all of his feelings would bubble over.
Then, he walked with Inej down to the harbor, and he chose to let the tears fall again, just for a few minutes, as they lowered flowers down into the water. Tears that he had never allowed himself to shed; however, something now told him that they were the best way he could remember his brother. To think about the good memories, to think about what had happened to them, and to grieve over the rest of the time that they would never get to have together.