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Tea Series

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Yujin nearly always knew what was going on before everyone else. Jimaya asked where Omare was and Yujin said he'd already retired for the night, then gracefully mentioned that it was a lovely evening for night-blooming water lilies and excused herself to the water garden. Grateful as ever for Yujin's tact, Jimaya motioned to a valet.

Jimaya let herself quietly into his room a short time later, tray in hand. "Hey. I brought ginseng."

Omare was sitting cross-legged on a heavily embroidered sofa, altogether far too tense to actually be absorbed in the book he was holding. The peace offering was obvious: their parents used to bring them ginseng tea when they quarreled as children. "To soothe and strengthen," their mother used to say, though at the time they didn't really know or care what she meant by it. It dawned on them many years later that the habit probably wasn't just a way to intervene and calm them down, but rather a reason for them to come together again, quietly and appreciatively. Regardless of Omare's mood, it was nearly impossible for him to turn down.

"Oh. You can put it there." He nodded sulkily at the end table closest to him.

Jimaya slid the tray onto the tabletop and Omare muttered his thanks as he reached for a cup. He waved at the other end of the sofa to spare Jimaya the discomfort of asking permission to join him.

"I suppose he told you how this afternoon went," he said.

"In a way. He didn't give very many details." Jimaya looked down at her hands in her lap. "...He winced when I hugged him."

"Odd," Omare said flatly, nose in his cup.

A hundred thoughts were jockeying for space in Jimaya's mind, and far more than half of them began with "I'm sorry." She spoke as carefully as she could manage. "I know you're probably not happy––"

"I would have preferred to hear it from you," Omare interrupted, fixing his eyes on her. "I don't like being ambushed in my own palace. It turns over unpleasant memories."

Jimaya looked away, wounded. "I was going to tell you myself. But we decided maybe it was an opportunity––"

"I am so sick of everyone giving me opportunities," Omare snapped. "You, Yujin, and now Rensai too? I'm not a child, I don't need to be spoon-fed lessons on acceptance, least of all from someone who's committed war crimes."

Jimaya drew breath to speak but nothing came out. Her hands were shaking in her lap. She could feel Omare watching her until he huffed and looked away.

"You'd feel the same if you'd been down there instead of me."

"I know," Jimay said quietly. "I think about that often."

She did. It haunted her: the fact that there had been plenty of room on the boat that had carried her to safety, and if it hadn't been for the heave of the sea or if her grip had been just a little bit stronger, he would never have been captured at all. Or if she'd fallen instead, maybe she would have been dragged to the Den and met Rensai there. Maybe he would have filled Yujin's role, and there would have been no need for a Den coup.

Maybe he wouldn't have. But she couldn't bear to think like that.

"No–– stop, that's not what I meant." Omare's voice shook her from the litany of horrible alternatives. He sounded agitated. "I didn't mean you should have or that you have to linger on it. Just that… it is very, very hard for me to understand how you could…."

Jimaya wilted. He couldn't even say it. "Love him?"

Omare nodded, eyes down.

"You can be angry with me," Jimaya offered dolefully. "But please don't be angry with him. For everything else, fine, I could never tell you when or how to heal from what he's done to you. But don't be angry at him for this. He hasn't trapped me or tricked me or–– or whatever else you think he might have done."

"He's taking you." Omare's voice broke on the word and Jimaya's heart did the same. "He took our parents and now he's come for you too."

Jimaya's throat locked tight. There was so much nuance missing from Omare's summary but Jimaya couldn't bear to correct any of it. That Rensai had discouraged the siege as strongly as his position had permitted. That he hadn't fired a single arrow. But all Omare knew was the person that had imprisoned him, threatened his life, and shackled Omare's subjects alongside him.

And as much as Jimaya loved him, both of those versions of Rensai existed at once.

"He's not taking me," she said shakily. "I promise. You don't have to understand it. But please, Omare. Please just try to accept it. I'll put off the wedding as long as you want, I just…." Tears were pressing hot against her eyes and she looked at the ceiling to hold them back, but there was no stopping them: she dropped her head again and they spilled onto the folds of her silk dress. She watched them roll light and silvery over the fabric. "I'm sorry it's him," she choked out. "I think of it every time I see you together, about how much you hate him and wish he were anyone else. Sometimes I even wish he were someone else, so this wouldn't be so horrible for you. But no one else…."

Spoke to her like him. Held her like him. Looked at her like him. Took away the day like him. Every burden of royal life was lifted with a single half-smile or an absentminded twist of a finger in her hair. He took his face in her hands, touched their foreheads together, and his hair fell around them in a curtain that blocked out every pressure and obligation. She was only herself in his arms. The least important person in her own world, and the only one in his.

She couldn't finish. Omare couldn't understand. She pressed the heels of her hands to her eyes.

"Is he kind to you?" Omare asked quietly.

Jimaya sniffed and nodded.

"And gentle? Generous?"

Another nod.

"And he thinks of you?"

Jimaya laughed thickly. "Sometimes I worry I'm all he thinks about."

She could feel Omare grappling with that information. The idea of a gentle Rensai was probably inconceivable to him. She was wiping her eyes again when Omare pulled her into a hug.

"I trust your judgment." His voice came brittle but determined. "And I'll try."

She gripped him back and tried to pour everything she was feeling into him, regret and relief and mourning and gratitude and deep, enduring love. He drew back and placed his palm against hers, and she sniffled a laugh when the tips of his fingers curled over hers. As children they had been near mirror images – they'd press their identical hands together and try to mimic each other's movements, slowly at first, then faster and faster until they both collapsed in a giggling heap.

They were too big now. Their hands didn't match anymore. But they remembered.

"I'm with you, all right?" Omare shook her hand reassuringly in his own. "Always."