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Tea Series

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Yujin laid one hand atop the other. Several years had passed since she'd been on the receiving end of such disquiet from Rensai, and those memories weren't particularly pleasant. A lot of impatient words and flinty eyes, all slicked smooth and dark under a thick varnish of bravado.

No traces of bravado remained now. He was all anxiety, drawn tight as a bowstring, and it was a little hard not to smile to see him in such a state, especially sitting in the spring sunlight of the palace's quietest garden. He was the precise opposite of his peaceful surroundings.

"Why don't you have some tea?" Yujin invited him with a gentle gesture.

Rensai nodded, uncommonly stiff as he he poured Yujin's cup first and slid it across towards her, then his own. She watched him through the lifting steam.

"So." She offered him an encouraging smile as she sipped. "You said you wanted my advice about something?"

He raised his eyebrows. "No time for niceties even between old friends, I see."

Yujin laughed. She couldn't really dispute the word "friends," but nor did it feel particularly fitting. Too much had happened for them to be close, but they'd shared far too much more to be kept apart. Maybe the Forest People had a word for that peculiar kind of intimacy.

"You only take your time when you're in a good mood," she said. "Forgive me, but you seem a bit tense."

"I'm never tense," he said automatically, but he seemed to recognize the absurdity of the claim as clearly as she did. He waved a hand at the objectively beautiful garden and scowled into his tea. "It's the setting."

"The garden?"

"The palace."

"I thought you were used to it," Yujin said carefully. "You certainly spend a lot of time here, esteemed Chief Engineer."

"For work."

"And for her."

His mouth had gone tight to ward away a smile and Yujin beamed at the sight of it. Love looked good on Rensai. She'd seen him fight for it before, taking on and off whatever affectionate pretenses he thought might suit the situation, but the real thing was quite different. It came much easier to him. It made him so much younger, so much softer – she almost wanted to tell him so to see how he'd react. But his expression flickered back to blank.

"There is a chance," he said, measuring each word as he turned his teacup between thumb and middle finger, "that I may need to spend more time here than I would otherwise like. Or would have planned."

Yujin sipped her tea as neutrally as she could manage. "You may need to," she repeated. "That sounds serious. Has this necessity been forced upon you, or have you volunteered for it?"

"Neither yet. But it would be voluntary."

Yujin hummed thoughtfully. "And I imagine it would be for a long period of time."

Rensai nodded. "Most likely."

She couldn't contain it any longer. She put her teacup down, certain she'd drop it no matter his answer. "Do you intend to spend your life with her?"

The twisting, stifled smile was back. "If she'll allow it." At last Rensai met her gaze. "Yes."

It was the only logical answer in the world but Yujin gasped delightedly anyway. "Oh, Rensai!" She clasped her hands over her heart, beaming and seized by the impulse to embrace him. The absurdity of the idea barely held her in place. "This is wonderful news, Jimaya will be thrilled––"

He hushed her, his eyes darting around the deserted garden, but he was losing his own battle to smother his relief at Yujin's reaction. "I thought you'd be happy. But there's the matter of her brother, and a wedding––"

"A wedding!"

"Yes," he hissed her quiet again. "She'll want a proper one. I've put enough strain on her with the current arrangement and she's already done that once before."

Arrangement. Rensai was so strange. As though he and Jimaya had shaken hands over it in secret and agreed never to speak of it again, even long after they had become public. But Yujin had forgotten about Tsulemon and what that had done to Jimaya, her constant loop of hope and disappointment that the Firefly Boy could adapt to royal life and the painful farewell that had followed. Those days felt so distant now, especially since Forest People seemed incapable of holding onto unhappy memories for long: Tsulemon still flitted into court every once in a while, colorful and upbeat as ever. Those wounds had long since healed, but even Yujin knew Jimaya preferred to avoid the scars. And pleasant though it was to think about Rensai plagued by his concern for Jimaya's feelings, the picture was beginning to come together. Yujin's smile faded.

"Ah. And by 'proper' you mean––"

"Imperial."

To his credit he didn't spit the word like he usually did when the twins weren't around to hear it, but this was somehow worse. Yujin recognized the fixed, resigned look on his face. He'd worn it during his pardon years ago. Like he'd been handed a death sentence.

"It's not as bad as you think," she said gently.

"No," he grumbled. "It's just living like them, eating like them, being like them, all under their watch."

"I don't feel like I'm under their watch."

He didn't even dignify that with an answer – he stared flatly at her, and Yujin knew what he meant. Their reputations were nothing alike. She tried again.

"Am I any less Denborn just because I live here?"

Rensai's eyes passed over her distinctly Imperial robes. If he was skeptical, he didn't dare voice it.

"They can't peel off your tattoos, Rensai," she pointed out quietly. She reached out across the table and touched his hand: his stiffened, then relaxed. "You are who you are. More so than most, to tell the truth. I suspect that's why Jimaya loves you."

That did the trick. He drew his hand back to take up his tea again, but Yujin recognized the ground she'd gained in the line creasing his brow. She pushed forward.

"You don't seek other people's advice. You're not very good at it. You make up your mind and then you announce it to everyone else so we can all deal with the consequences." His scowl had turned sour and she tried not to smile. "Maybe if you were better at it..."

"You've made your point," Rensai said waspishly.

"So if your mind is made up, why are you coming to me about it?"

Rensai's glare deepened when he noticed how amused she was. "Omare has made you insufferable," he muttered.

"And Jimaya has made you tolerable," she returned brightly, and he snorted despite himself. She leaned closer so he couldn't avoid her gaze. "This is the best decision you've ever made, Rensai," she said, kinder. "I look forward to the consequences."

The wind pulled its fingers through the willow tree branches and, at a loss for what else to say, both of them turned to watch. Yujin wished she could ask him what Jimaya gave him that made him willing to risk every part of himself. Validation, probably. A challenge. Reassurance. But to ask would be too personal and to guess would be too cruel. That was for them to know and hold close, just as Yujin held her own reasons tightly between herself and Omare. They settled for quiet instead, their thoughts tugged elsewhere by the wind.

"Thank you, Yujin," he said at last.

"It's my pleasure." She refreshed both their teacups and sat back, tapping her finger thoughtfully against the rim. "Rensai and Jimaya," she sighed. "I wonder what your father would have said."

She ventured a glance at him and was relieved to find him smiling. He leaned back on his hands and looked out into the sunlit garden.

"I don't know. I suspect he died just to avoid seeing me finally get something right."