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Four Seasons

Chapter Text

"And I don't have to repeat myself, do I?"

"No," Rensai grumbled. Luckily for him his father's attention was fixed squarely on the scrolls in front of him, pen gripped between bony fingers. It was the only way Rensai could get away with glaring so deeply at him.

"You are not to see them."

"I said you don't have to repeat yourself," Rensai half-snapped. "Do I?" He wiped the scowl from his face just in time for his father to lift steely eyes to his.

"We will do without the childish outbursts," Yoren said coolly. "You have a job to do. A deadline should motivate you, and you like the mines."

Not for an entire week. Not when his friends were catching up and training and laughing without him.

"Can I afford to be away from Yujin that long?" Rensai sneered. But Yoren just scoffed.

"Your time with her seems about as productive as your time apart from her. Focus on the achievable goal. And don't sulk. You'll see the royals before the year is out, if you do what needs to be done." He returned to his work – a clear dismissal.

Rensai stalked from the room, hands curled into fists. They stayed that way until he found a target for his anger in a deeper, less trafficked part of the Den: he landed strike after strike on a wooden training dummy, and when his hands began to bleed, he wrapped them and struck again. At last he leaned his arms on the pegs to rest, hair stringy from sweat and his breathing a labored, lonely sound in the empty cavern.

He could tell them. Spite flared at the thought. There was little to tell, but he could tell it anyway and trust that the twins would bear it back to their parents. And what would his father have to say then, when his so-called trade proposal fell apart before it even touched paper? That was his fear, wasn't it? What other reason could there be for forbidding Rensai from seeing the twins?

There was more to it. He could feel himself being pushed along like ink under his father's calligraphy brush, little idea where he was headed until he looked at the path he left behind. He'd felt the same when he'd been pushed towards Yujin, as though his heart wouldn't follow. He still ached with the pain of it.

No. He couldn't tell the twins. Omare would surely spill it to Yujin and she wouldn't understand. Rensai had spent too long keeping secrets from her for any lingering flicker of affection to save him from suspicion. She'd take it back to her father and the hours upon hours of work would be for nothing, even if it was all for the better of the Den.

She'd be frightened of it. And beneath the layers of pride and satisfaction for every moment he'd poured into his work, a needling twinge in Rensai's gut told him maybe she was right to be.

He gritted his teeth and landed a final punch.

The twins' arrival the following week was easy enough to avoid, but talk of it was not. Gossip hung thick as smoke in the passageways during the few trips Rensai took between home and the mines.

"Omare's gotten really good with a broadsword. Nearly took my arm off this morning–-"

"Did you see him spar with his sister? They were going so hard you'd think only one of them could rule!"

"Maybe that's why. Hey, Rensai." Kantu slung an arm over his shoulders before Rensai could dodge it. "Are both of them going to rule, or does one have to kill the other or something?"

"I don't know," Rensai said moodily, shrugging him off.

"Well find out, would you? And then ask Jimaya if she remembers me from her last visit."

"Who would remember you?" another boy jeered, and Rensai took the opportunity to slip away as the two began to bicker.

Time slid by with merciful speed in his workshop, at least. No sunlight, no distractions, no way of knowing how many hours had passed. No one to interrupt. The heavy stone walls dulled even the noise from the mines, and if he focused hard enough he could shove the thought of everything he was missing almost far away enough to forget. Almost. But the weight of it still clung to him with every step towards and away from the workshop.

"There you are. You're strangely hard to track down, you know."

Rensai startled and spun around. Jimaya was there, pleased as could be, hands propped on her hips.

"Jimaya."

She'd come to find him. And on her own. Smug, mischievous awe surged inside him. His father couldn't have predicted that.

But Rensai wrestled his voice into careless calm. "I'd forgotten you were arriving this week. It's good to see you."

Jimaya's smile dimmed a little. The memory of the laughter and embraces that had marked prior reunions tugged on them both, he was sure of it. "And you," she said anyway. "Where have you been? Even Yujin doesn't know – she just said you were working."

"She's right. And I should get back to it. Maybe I'll see you in time to say goodbye." He raised his hand in farewell and forced himself to edge away from her, retreating towards the workshop. She scrunched her nose in a frown and moved to follow him.

"That's it? I had to promise that boy Kantu I'd sit beside him at dinner tonight just to figure out where you were, you know."

"You can break it. No one will believe him." Rensai's heel hit the wall – he could turn off here and disappear down the side passageway, but he hesitated. His eyes darted over Jimaya's shoulder as though his father might appear behind her.

She noticed his gaze and glanced back at the empty tunnel; when she turned back her expression had gone from confused to suspicious. "Something's going on. Tell me what it is."

Every year the precise nature of her willfulness came as a surprise. Not demanding, not pouty, but certain. Like things would go her way simply because they were meant to. Rensai's heart raced. Whether from mischief, anxiety, or daring he couldn't tell, but locked in the sights of Jimaya's stubborn attention he decided he didn't care.

He lowered his voice, unable to stop a smile from tugging at his lips. "I'll tell you. But you'll have to keep it a secret."

Jimaya lit up. "I knew it," she whispered, instantly conspiratorial. "What is it? I can't even tell Omare?"

"No. Least of all Omare."

"And Yujin doesn't know either?"

There was permission in her tone, the test of an invisible boundary she hesitated to cross. Jimaya knew. She had to know something had happened, some unspoken failure Yujin was too polite to mention outright. Or maybe Rensai had just been blindingly obvious for the past three years. But Jimaya was looking up at him with such excited earnestness, maybe even hope, that boldness seized hold of him. He grasped her hand and grinned when she jumped.

"No. This needs to stay between us. Can you do that?"

Jimaya nodded, wide-eyed. He wanted to kiss her.

"Good," he said instead. "But I'll have to show you. This way."

She let out a high note of surprise as he pulled her down the side passageway. It curved in a tight spiral, boring down towards the mines, and in a flighty rush of excitement Rensai tugged her faster.

"Wait!" she laughed, gripping his hand tighter. "You're going to make me trip–-"

"Shh, we can't be heard," he hushed over his shoulder. They raced deeper and deeper until finally the passageway opened up into a tunnel as broad as the first. Rensai stopped short and caught a panting Jimaya in his arms.

"Quiet," he whispered. The tunnel would be empty. It nearly always was, as was the passageway behind them. But she was in his arms, flushed and giddy, and Rensai pulled her closer to make a show of checking whether the coast was clear. He took her hand again and led her just a little ways further to the very end of the tunnel. Two blazing torches framed the heavy, unadorned metal door to his workshop. Reluctantly he let her go to take up one of the torches.

"Stand back a moment," he warned. "I need to light the lamps."

He swung the door open on the pitch dark workshop, but he raised the torch higher and touched it to a ledge a couple feet overhead. Fire flared to life, scurrying across the perimeter of the room and illuminating the wide, high-ceilinged workshop in a blazing glow. Jimaya gasped as carefully angled mirrors on the ceiling bounced the firelight back towards the floor, and once the flames had settled the room was lit bright enough to rival daylight. He turned back to her and held his arms wide in welcome.

"Wow," Jimaya breathed, stepping inside, and pleased Rensai hurried to return the torch to its place outside the door and close them in. He watched as her eyes traced the firelit ledge, then found the barrels of ground ore against the wall, the prototype hand-powered mill, then came to rest on the massive workbench that stood in the center of the room, piled high with notes and scales and sacks of powder.

"This is incredible." She squeezed his arm. Rensai felt it in his chest. "What is all this? What are you making?"

"Something only this mountain can produce," he said, "and once the rest of the world knows about it, they'll want it too. Come here."

He led her to the workbench and cleared a space with a wide sweep of his arm. A few notes fluttered to the ground but he paid them no mind as he pulled one of the sacks closer, then cast around. "Where–- ah." He snatched up a flint and turned to Jimaya. "Remember. This stays between us."

"I promise," she said without hesitation.

Emboldened by the spark of their shared secret, Rensai grinned and dug his hand into the sack. He let the powder inside fall from his closed fist like sand through an hourglass, measured and controlled until it settled in a neat, peaked pile atop the workbench. He dusted off his hands, cast a final glance at Jimaya, then struck the flint.

Brilliant white light blazed to life, brighter than any fire, clearer than sunlight. Jimaya yelped and clapped her hands over her mouth. But just as soon as it had appeared, the white flame vanished, leaving behind only a wisp of smoke and a tiny pile of ash.

"What?" Jimaya gasped, awestruck. "What was that, how did you–-" But words failed her and Rensai was already digging up another handful of powder. This time he spread the piles out, five of them in a neatly separated row, and when he struck his flint over the first the light surged and leaped from one to the next in dazzling arcs. The light had barely faded when Rensai swept the ash clean and dashed another fistful across the surface of the workbench – that one flared low and flat but no less bright, erupting in a single burst. A page at the opposite end of the table caught fire and Jimaya cried out, but Rensai laughed and ground it out with the leather-covered heel of his hand.

"Firepowder," he said breathlessly, tossing his hair out of his eyes as he whirled back to her. "Mined in the belly of the mountain and milled into this." He held out a handful to show her, glittering like glass and darker than obsidian. Jimaya stared down at it in wonder, half rapt and half unnerved – the only reaction Rensai craved. "Can you imagine what this could do? What it could power, what it could illuminate?"

"But why is this a secret?" Jimaya looked up at him with shining eyes, astonished. "How can you not tell everybody?"

Satisfaction shivered through him. "It's not ready." Rensai returned the powder to its sack and leaned back against the workbench beside her. "I need to compound it with something but I haven't figured out what yet. And until I do, it's inefficient to produce and burns far too quickly. And," he gestured to the charred notes, "it's hard to control."

"So, like you."

He pushed his hair over his shoulder with mock vanity. "In the sense that it's ingenious and revolutionary, of course."

"And flashy."

"You mean brilliant."

"And difficult."

"You mean complex."

"You said it's not ready."

"Perfection is so hard to–-"

Jimaya rose up on her toes and pecked a kiss to his cheek.

"Not ready," she teased.

Rensai shook off his shock in the space of a second. He turned to her, yanked her closer, and smothered her laugh and his own smile with a proper kiss. Jimaya wound her arms around him, she pressed herself close – it was so different from Yujin that Rensai ached. She'd been all blushing glances, twined fingers, and humming nerves, and every inch they drew nearer had made Rensai burn for more. But Jimaya was already near. She was brilliantly, vividly present. He could feel her smile against his lips between kisses, she had come to him, and when they parted at last she let out a breathless giggle that left him dizzy.

"You're too tall," she whispered, flicking a playful glance over him.

Rensai hummed his agreement, then took her by the waist and lifted her onto the workbench. He caged her in with an arm on either side, leaning in for another kiss. "Better?"

Jimaya nodded and met him there in a sweet, unhurried press of warmth. Then another. And another. And when Rensai finally tore himself away the flush in her cheeks nearly dragged him right back.

"Now you'll have to keep this a secret," he murmured against her neck. He reveled in the shiver it shook out of her.

"I suppose." She sucked in a breath when he kissed her throat, then let it out on a long sigh. "Until it's ready."

He wrote her name in firepowder before he led her back. They watched as the light raced through each character, but the glowing afterimage lingered much longer, imprinted in their vision even as the smoke cleared. Like a comet's glittering tail, like flaming arrows over a wall. An intangible reminder of what was already far out of reach.

Rensai gripped her hand.