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this life is indescribable

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"He was afraid," Inej said. She was looking at the horizon, knees tucked to her chest, hood obscuring most of her face in shadow.

Kaz nodded. He had a hand on his cane, which rested at his side, and the other rested between them. He couldn't remember how he had allowed Inej to convince him that a rooftop was meeting in the middle, but the weather was mild and he liked to see the water whenever possible. "Good," he responded. And it was good. He'd seen Pekka Rollins, along with his family, fleeing a few hours before. One small ship against a wide smudge of gray-blue ocean. He wondered where they were going, and then remembered that he already knew, and that his plans extended far beyond today. Funny, how being around Inej made him so uncharacteristically forgetful.

To be truthful, he suspected it had something to do with the heat of her body near his. How one of her hands rested at her side, skimming the filthy ground, and her fingers were not uncurled but they were not tightened into a fist either. Something welcoming in the neutrality.

Something about how she knew he didn't like to be pushed.

Kaz moved on. "Who next?"

Inej huffed a very quiet laugh. "You haven't planned the next ten already? In order?"

"I have," he admitted, "but I wanted to hear your thoughts."

"My thoughts aren't about the upcoming missions," she said quietly. Everything she did was quiet. It made Kaz terrified to take his eyes off of her—if she disappeared, would he find her again? It was up to her. It was always, he thought, up to her. For now, she believed him to be kind man at heart. A good man. And so Kaz would have her as long as she continued believing the lie she told herself. It wasn't, he thought, with all things considered, the worst way this thing could go.

He paused, looked at her more carefully. He could see the slope of the tip of her nose, the dip of her chin. Her dark, strong brow. "Then what? Your family?"

"My family," she agreed. "Nina, and whether she made it safely to Fjerda. Jesper and his father, and Wylan, too." He watched her hesitate before speaking again. "If Matthias is resting. What I'll dream of tonight."

"Dream?" he asked.

Inej nodded, and part of her hood fell back. Kaz could see her eyes now, and the sight of them relaxed the tense set of his shoulders. "I'm the Wraith," she said. "You know what they say about me. The silent assassin, the whisper, Brekker's girl." Kaz was not proud of the zip of pleasure that last epithet set through him. "The dreams are nothing, after what we've been through."

"But they bother you," said Kaz. You're taking a risk, he did not add, though he wanted to. You need to be careful sharing things like that with people like me.

"Yes," answered Inej. "In these dreams, no one knows my name. Inej Ghafa is just... wiped away. Erased. Like she was never there at all."

Kaz frowned. "Inej is the truest version of you. The only version."

Inej did not answer him. She was still staring stubbornly ahead.

Kaz hated that he missed her gaze. "You have more shadows than anyone I know," he told her, and ignored her when she scoffed. "That's a strength, not a weakness." He flexed his hands at his sides. It was cold without his gloves, but he didn't know how to put them back on without closing a door he didn't want to close, so he let the breeze weave through his fingers and said nothing about it.

"I wonder when it'll feel like the worst has passed."

"It hasn't," replied Kaz.

Inej nodded, hard, determined, and finally looked at him. Her brown eyes held the key to the city in them. Kaz wondered if she knew. "I wonder when I'll stop wondering, then."

Time passed, syrup-slow, as a freighter came into view on the horizon and then disappeared again behind the glare of the sun through the ocean mist.

She took a heavy breath. "I killed Dunyasha. I smeared her across the pavement, and I would do it again."

"Good," said Kaz.

But Inej had not finished speaking. "I dream about her, too. And I think about my family, and what they would think of me if they knew the truth. I've done bad things, Kaz. You don't have the market cornered on ugly secrets. You try to do things alone, to— to protect us? To keep your secrets safe? But you forget how many of your plans you've looped me into. If nothing else, I'm complicit. All the bad things you've done, I've done, too."

It was not the thing Kaz wanted to hear, because there was no way to refute it, no matter how much he disagreed.

"The law doesn't touch us anymore," was all he could say in response. "Every judgment we make of ourselves is arbitrary."

"I don't think you believe that," she replied.

"I don't have to believe it to know that it's true."

Inej rolled up into a crouch, balanced on the balls of her feet with the rest of her body curled into a ball, arms still around her knees. The ocean breeze fluttered her hood, and it fell the rest of the way back. Seeing her unmarked face, clean of injury, no blood, bruises fading— it was more of a relief than anything Kaz had encountered in this war. She was so beautiful. It had cost Kaz more than he would admit to bring her family here, but he'd do it a hundred times over if it meant he'd see her smile again. "Is this our happy ending, then?" she asked him, those dark eyes turning to him.

Kaz thought about breaking the eye contact, about looking back over the waves and letting them drag him under to a place of cold calculation. Where he didn't have to feel. Where his heart didn't feel so thick in his chest.

He shifted instead and let their pinky fingers overlap.

HIs hands were cold and felt terribly bare, but Inej made it so easy. She hooked their fingers together, easy as anything, and waited for his answer like she cared to hear it.

He thought it over carefully, twisting it around in his hands. He examined it from every angle. This moment and how the setting sun shined off of it, splitting into hundreds of thousands of crystals of suspended light. This was a happier ending than Kaz had dared hope for. His backup plans had their own backups, grim outcomes with great cost in any number of last ditch efforts to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, but most of the people he'd thrown at this war had come out of it alive. Ketterdam was a vicious home that wanted to kill them, yes, and perhaps it always would be, but Kaz had put a muzzle on it for now. And next to him was Inej.

Inej, holding his hand. Inej, smiling at him with blood on her hands. All of that open trust that Kaz would be fighting to deserve for the rest of his miserable life. It was the only debt he'd ever incurred that he didn't feel afraid of.

She nudged him, just gently. Patient, but seeking. She wanted to know.

The ocean roiled blearily beneath it all, and Kaz took a deep breath of salty air and surveyed this wretched place he loved so much.

"No," he said finally. A horrible, tiny bloom of hope sprouted in his chest. "No, there are happier ahead."