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On the nights you feel outnumbered

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He had dreams like this almost every night. Ones that made his breaths come too fast, sweat coating him from head to toe as he fought to get to the surface of Fifth Harbor. Usually, it was relatively the same -- Jordie beneath him, hands pulling the two of them under.

Over the years, his body had become accustomed to it. It had learned to panic quietly, so that anyone outside would not be able to see his terror. His shame.

Tonight, his body did not panic quietly. Tonight, he tossed and turned and sobbed at the images of Inej in Jordie’s place beneath him, the hands of the friends and family that he’d lost trying to pull them down together.

That is what she awoke to. The pull of the sheets being twisted around her legs, familiar enough that it startled her subconscious, distant enough of a memory that she was aware something new was wrong. “Inej,” she heard, choked and broken from beside her, uttered before her eyes could even adjust.

It was the consistent pulling at the sheets, the shaking of the body beside her, the crying that she’d heard so rarely, that assured her that it was safe to release the knife she’d gripped beneath the pillow.

Instead, she used that hand to help herself turn over, assessing the state of the bed before pulling the tangled blankets from around herself and Kaz and resting them at their feet in a hurried scramble. He’d told her once, in a half-ashamed whisper, that the blankets sometimes made it worse. That in his sleep, his mind could not distinguish that pulling from the tugging of hands around his ankles.

“Kaz,” she said softly, reaching over and gently, gently placing her hand on his shoulder, over a spot where his shirt was creasing over itself. “Wake up, my love,” she mumbled, squeezing just a bit.

That was when he jolted awake, eyes wide, mouth open in shock and breathing hard, staring up at her like she was a killer ready to claim his life. “It’s alright,” she assured, lowering herself back down beside him. “You were having a nightmare.”

He nodded wordlessly, still staring, like he was surprised to see her.

He was, in fact, surprised to see her. Absolutely thrilled, shocked out of his mind in the best way possible. To see her there and breathing, on land, eyes bright and staring over at him in the darkness. He could’ve literally jumped for joy at that moment.

Instead, he was struggling not to be brought to tears at the sight of her face.

“Kaz,” she whispered, likely because he had continued staring, saying nothing. She didn’t like that, and he knew it, but he couldn’t-- there weren’t enough words in the Kerch language to describe the way this felt.

He knew he didn’t usually react in his sleep like that. The blankets usually stayed in one place -- usually getting soaked through with sweat, but they stayed in one place -- and he almost never spoke. Tonight, the fact that she’d noticed enough to pull the sheets down, told him all that he needed to know. That he’d let himself go, and she’d been there to catch him.

What if she hadn’t been, that voice in the back of his mind asked. What then?

She had been, though. That was all that mattered. Those were the words that he fired back at it. His new armor; ten times stronger and carrying ammunition of its own.

He looked away from her, head turning and eyes going back up to the ceiling. He took a moment to assess himself, rather than the two of them together. He was still shaking, his body trembling in that way that he could never cease after a nightmare like that. No part of his body didn’t hurt in some way, but the loudest complaints came from his leg and stomach, both throbbing in their particular, pain-in-the-ass kind of ways.

“Kaz,” Inej whispered again from beside him. “Look at me,” she ordered softly, and he saw out of the corner of his eye as she reached a hand closer to him. A request to take it, but nowhere even close to a command.

A moment passed, and then he was turning on his side to face her, curled in the same way she was. Still, he said nothing.

“What can I do to help?” she asked quietly, meeting his eyes.

It had been a relief to see her face, when he’d woken up. To see her blinking eyes and moving lips as she spoke to him. Now, he was struggling to fight that ghost in his mind once more, as it tried to replace the face in front of him with the lifeless one from his dreams.

He closed his eyes, shaking his head against the pillow. “I don’t know,” he rasped, voice catching at the beginning of the sentence.

“Talk?” she suggested, because it had helped before, and it likely would again. He’d always requested it, in the past. Before right now, when he was at a loss. When he wasn’t certain that even her voice could reinforce that she was not the one who’d been dead beneath him.

He nodded, still. Without armor. He had to try.

And before she could get a word out, he was reaching a hand out, out, past her hand, to the space just above her shoulder. She took in a sharp breath, staring into his eyes. No alarm was in hers -- just confusion. Shock, maybe. Clearing her throat, she nodded, and he brushed her hair from where it laid against her neck.

“You know, when I was small, there was a time that I got a big lump of paste stuck in my hair,” she said, huffing out a laugh. “My mother worked on it for hours. Oil, water, soap -- nothing could get it out. She had to cut it to my shoulders. I was absolutely heartbroken,” she mumbled as his fingertips grazed her skin. They both shivered at the contact, pausing a bit. “It would fall behind me like this when I laid down. That, or it would go right in my face. There were nights when I'd cried over it, just because I couldn’t pull it back enough to keep cool.”

He grinned a bit at that. For only a moment, he was distracted from his fears, and it was only Inej in front of him. Alive, breathing, smiling softly back at him.

Then, it was over, and the uncertainty was back. The wonder about whether it was really Inej, or was it the dead version of Inej?

His fingertips traveled up slowly, tracing the tendon in her neck all the way to her jawline. Her eyes fluttered closed, but she nodded once more. Go on. Over, just a bit, to the spot under her ear. And there it was -- every assurance he’d ever need.

Her pulsepoint was right there, beneath his fingertips. The clearest sign that she was alive.

The rhythm might be compared to water, but it was in the right way. It did not mimic the slow thrashing of Fifth Harbor, of the barge that sat upon it. It matched the ebbing of the sea, the waves that would hit the port back in Lij, the ones that Inej’s very ship sailed upon during the warm months of the year.

After holding it there for a moment, his own eyes fell closed, too. Sheer relief from the idea of certain life washed over him, making him exhale slowly.

“That helps?” she asked, after a long moment of him lying there, trying to let his body relax as much as his mind finally had earned the chance to.

He opened his eyes to find her looking at him once more, eyes scanning over his face. He nodded just slightly, trying hard not to jostle his hand. It was a compromising position they were in, really. Skin on skin, hands on neck. Dangerous, if they weren’t careful.

He swallowed hard, squeezing his eyes shut again as he forced himself to speak. “Your heartbeat, it’s-” he cut himself off, shaking his head a bit. “Helps.”

“Would it be better directly, or…” she asked quietly, reluctantly, as if she wasn’t even sure she wanted to try this.

It took him a moment to consider what ‘directly’ meant, what she may be suggesting by offering that. “If you think you could handle more touch, I mean. If you’d want that,” she said quietly, and oh.

He’d fallen asleep in Inej’s arms like that a handful of times so far. Only in the daylight, during good days where they were both tired enough that a nap would be of benefit. Every other time, it was on his stomach, her arm thrown over his back and her stomach pressed against his side. That, or not touching at all. Usually, not touching at all.

They’d never tried it after a nightmare. Especially not one as bad as this one.

And he wasn’t sure if he was in over his head, or if the idea was purely a romanticization, but the prospect of lying there with Inej, warm and feeling her heart beating right there… It was the exact opposite of his nightmare. It was what he’d describe if asked to explain a dream rather than a terror.

He nodded just once, hesitant. She did the same.

“Let me move over,” she mumbled, and he pulled his hand off of her neck to let her roll onto her back, sitting up just a bit more against the pillows behind her. “Could you grab the blankets back, if you want them?” she asked quietly, and he did so without question.

By the time he pulled them all up, Inej was resting against the headboard, pillows protecting her head and spine from the wood. Her arm laid to the side, an invitation for him to lie down close to her.

And damn it, if neither of them were this anxious about touch, he’d have jumped for it.

Instead, he lowered himself down slowly onto his side, resting his head gently on her chest. She took a deep breath, a stuttering and slightly shaky one, and he considered sitting up and calling it off. But, rather than allow that, she placed her hand on his shoulder, pushing down slightly to pull him against her.

It took a moment for him to realize it, to hear anything but the combination of their heavy breathing. But, underneath that, there was her heartbeat, thumping in her chest as thought she’d just run some sort of race. “Are you alright?” he whispered.

She took another shaky breath, nodding. “Just not used to it,” she whispered.

He nodded in understanding, considering what to do. There was always an unfamiliar caution that took hold of him with her, like this. A wariness keep from doing something that may make her vanish.

He pondered for a moment longer, hoping that this idea would be helpful rather than something to pull her mind from her body.

Slowly and wordlessly, he turned his body a bit more, resting his arm across her stomach. It was the way they usually did it -- not some odd halfway variation of how they typically laid together. It seemed the most logical, after all, to try something that they knew worked, rather than let her sit and possibly fight her memories off on her own.

Rather than the extra weight making her stress worse like he feared it might, she relaxed more into the blankets, moving her hand up to rest on his forearm. “Is this better?” she asked quietly, rubbing his shoulder gently.

Somehow, despite the ‘on-his-stomach and above another person’ way that he was lying, it was better. She’d keep him not only afloat, but dry as they stayed there together. She’d help him stay afloat, hold onto him so he didn’t have to do all of the work to keep himself going. Just as he would for her.

He nodded as best he could, sighing a bit. “You’re warm,” he mumbled against her shirt, and she chuckled, making his head shake where it rested over her chest.

“These pajamas are thick,” she whispered, moving the hand on his arm up to brush against his hair, and damn it.

If he was just slightly less collected, the purely childlike whine building in his throat would’ve made its way out. Instead, he tensed, pressing up into it, and she brought her hand down to put more pressure as she carded her fingers through his hair, and he slowly relaxed as he was assured she wouldn’t let up on him.

He laid there for a long, long time. His mind slowly calmed with the feeling of her hand in his hair and her heart beating beneath his head, both serving as sure reminders that she was alive and with him.

After a while, he found himself struggling to stay awake. The last thing either of them needed was him having a nightmare like this, sweating and thrashing about in her arms. It would be far too much for his mind and body to handle, to panic like that again tonight while touching another person, and it would likely send Inej literally running out the window.

Finally, eyes half-open and head lulling to the side every few seconds, he spoke. “I’m tired, ‘Nej,” he breathed, and she let out that same, chest-shaking laugh.

“Go to sleep, then,” she whispered, picking her head up to press a kiss to the top of his.

He turned his head a bit, what she thought might be his attempt at a sleepy head-shake, and she knew what he was going to say. She could feel it in her very bones. It’s not safe. “But-”

“No ‘buts’,” she whispered, and he let out a tired, breathy chuckle that had her rolling her eyes almost on impulse. And along with it, she couldn’t help but smile a bit; as much as he was a Barrel boss, he still had the sense of humor of a teenage boy. “Go to sleep. It’s okay.”

“Inej.”

“It’s okay,” she assured, squeezing his shoulder a bit and pulling his head closer to her chest in her best attempt at a hug from this position.

It was here that he relented, clearly having determined that she would not be giving in. She was as stubborn as he was, when she wanted to be, after all. “‘Kay,” he mumbled, turning his face closer to her chest and letting his eyes fall closed. “Wake me up if you need to.”

He thought maybe he heard the rustling sound of a nod against the pillow in response, along with her little whisper of “Alright,” but he wasn’t entirely sure. All he knew was the warmth of that exact spot, her hands holding him close, and the beating of her heart lulling him into a wonderfully dreamless sleep.