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Tea Series

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"What's it like?" she asks offhandedly. He won't notice how carefully she's arranged the teaware on the tray, and he probably wouldn't care if he could. But she does it anyway.

"What is what like?"

"I heard losing one sense sharpens the others." Jimaya hopes the delicate clink of ceramic punctuates the casual tone she's working so hard to strike. "Is it true?"

She's grown good at reading his lips. There's nothing to be gleaned from his eyes, not when they're hidden behind his blindfold, but she gets plenty from the way his mouth tightens at the corners.

"That's a very personal question," Rensai says lowly.

"I'm just curious."

"This is a loss, not some kind of fun experiment."

She sees teeth in that one. She pours the tea to give her something to think about other than the sudden tension pulling the room taut between them. Whatever Rensai says, she's pretty sure she's right: she's not looking at him now, he couldn't look at her if he tried, and yet she's certain he's glaring at her. It feels plenty sharp.

"I'm sorry," she says, and means it. He turns his face away and ignores the tea she slides across the table towards him. "I didn't mean to offend."

"Hm." It's a few pointed moments before he reaches for the teacup: his hand skims the tabletop until he catches the side of it with his pinky. He sips, and the chrysanthemum steam seems to soothe him a bit. "It's not a matter of sharpening," he says at last. "There's just more room to interpret everything else. I don't have to see your face to know you're letting your tea sit because you feel guilty for prying, for instance."

Jimaya sets her teacup down decisively just to prove him wrong. The edged corners of his mouth curve up the slightest bit.

"Don't you close your eyes to better appreciate your tea?" he goes on. "Don't you prefer quiet when you read? Those senses are not sharper, you're just paying better attention. Apply a little critical thought next time and maybe you can avoid asking insensitive questions."

"Sorry, are you lecturing me about empathy?" Jimaya asks loftily. This time Rensai smiles in earnest.

"Go look in that drawer." He sips again and nods in the vague direction of the other side of the room.

There's a small chest against the wall there, and Jimaya abandons her cup to pull open the top drawer. Simple lengths of black cloth lay inside, each carefully folded.

"Take one and come back here."

She chooses a blindfold and returns to the table, but when she makes to take her place across from him again Rensai shakes his head.

"Here."

Jimaya scowls at him, wary, but reluctantly joins him on his side. He turns to face her as she folds her knees beneath her.

"Now put it on."

"Absolutely not," Jimaya says promptly.

Is it possible to leer while blindfolded? She suspects yes, because Rensai's smile takes hold of her insides in a way that at once pulls her nearer and makes her wish they still had the table between them.

"Don't you trust me?"

"Of course not."

His grin grows. "Then don't you want to test that empathy of yours?"

He holds out his hand. Jimaya all but slaps the blindfold into it with a huff, but he's not discouraged as he stretches the fabric out, folds it neatly in half, then crooks two fingers to beckon her closer still. She inches forward. Something's to blame for making her comply. Stubbornness or spite or pride. Maybe all three. But she's at least sure it's not the new, needling buzz at the very ends of her nerves.

She blames those same nerves when Rensai's hand meets her shoulder and she jumps. He follows the curve up past her neck until he's cradling the back of her head, then leans in to thread the blindfold around her. The last thing she sees before her world goes black is how alarmingly close they are, his arms looped around her, enclosing her in a ring. But the knot cinches tight and he draws away again.

"Now. Take a deep breath."

He inhales with her. Somehow having a partner in it helps calm a fraction of her apprehension. Jimaya rolls her shoulders a little as she breathes out again, and with it she shakes off the thought of his hand at the nape of her neck.

"What can you hear?"

She tries to focus. At first it's just her own heartbeat, elevated and self-conscious, and she frowns and gropes for more.

"Don't answer aloud," he says as if on cue. "Just catalog it."

The crackle of the hearth. Her own breathing. The tic of the settling cottage. The windows are thrown wide to let in the summer breeze – the wind carries the foot traffic and chatter from the street below on its back.

"Another breath."

His voice. Deep, rich, accented. The thrum of her pulse quiets on her exhale.

"What can you smell?"

Humid summer air. Not so much a smell as an added weight to her lungs, heavy with the threat of rain. The spices Rensai keeps in his pantry, fragrant Denborn seasonings with tastes she recognizes but names she never remembers. The faintest whiff of their forgotten tea.

Leather polish. Clean smoke. A bare hint of incense, as though drifting in from another room. Him.

His hand settles on top of hers. Jimaya startles.

"What can you feel?"

Hesitantly, she shifts her fingers under his and over her silken skirt. It's cool, smooth, the threads plush and pliable on the embroidery. Jimaya traces her finger along one pattern's outline – a peacock tail, she thinks, or a cascade of blossoms. She can't remember which. Her touch slides down in the direction of the threads, then catches slightly as she strokes against the grain.

His hand departs from hers, trailing featherlight down her fingers to trace a golden swirl of thread at her knee. Jimaya stills to match her lungs. Rensai lingers there for a moment, then spreads his palm flat against her leg, a firm but unpossessive pressure. He thumbs her thigh absentmindedly. It's such a tender, intimate gesture that Jimaya barely has time to string together a coherent reaction before he's moved on again: he takes her hand once more and turns it over in his. He ghosts over her palm, mapping each line, the length of each finger, and at last Jimaya breaks free of her paralysis enough to curl her hand in his. She can feel calluses, long, strong fingers – gentle as his touch may be, it's impossible not to think about what these hands have done. What they've created and destroyed.

But the air shifts and his other hand cups her face. It coaxes her back to the present and she follows willingly, unable to bring herself to do anything but sit still, lightheaded, under his touch. Rensai traces her ear, tucks her hair back, passes his thumb over her cheek and then, so lightly she almost thinks she imagines it, her lips.

There's one sense left. Her eyes fly open.

She knows with every part of her that he's close. Her heartbeat feels like it's echoing off him, as if she's somehow feeling his too. His hand still rests over hers in her lap. His breath is warm on her lips. When did she part them?

"What can you taste?" Rensai asks softly.

She can't see anything through the blindfold. Jimaya closes her eyes anyway.