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Sweet Tangerine

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Judging the edge of the jagged, unfamiliar outcropping was proving as dangerous as it was difficult at this time of night. The torches that illuminated the way back to the den trailed several yards behind her, little help now that she ventured further outwards. She kept a hand on the rock wall for balance, unsure of whether she could trust the footing under her next few steps. A cool, calloused hand caught hers just as she reached forward again. A gasp of surprise escaped her and Rensai chuckled, gripping her steadily.

"Did you think I'd lead you somewhere unsafe?"

The answer he wanted to hear was so obvious that she couldn't bring herself to give it to him. She'd suspected there would be some element of danger even before she'd realized the instructions he'd given her were leading her out of the mountain. His machinations had been pretty easy to spot: push her out of her comfort zone and straight into his open arms. She wouldn't wound him by calling him predictable, but she wasn't going to give him the satisfaction of an answer either, not when her breath had already given her away. She tugged on her hand but he held it fast, drawing her forward.

"This way."

Her eyes began to adjust as she followed and the outline of the view took shape: dark, behemoth mountains against the indigo sky; the shadowy ruffle of forest in between; and far beyond, the glisten of moonlight and stars on the sea. It was a splendid view, and with the edge of the outcropping now clearly in sight, her hand relaxed in his as she took it all in. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him turn to watch her, hungry for a reaction, determined to impress. She willed her eyes forward.

"Beautiful, isn't it?" His eyes were still on her, but finally he turned away again to follow her gaze out towards the sea. "Fresh air, far from the mines and heat and noise, and the nearest watch post can't see this cliff at its angle. I come here to think."

Her lips twisted into a smile, grateful for the cover of darkness. She imagined him leaning up against the wall for the first time – which was probably a week ago at most – congratulating himself on the image of his thin, war-built frame against the starry sky. But a chance look at him found him staring across the expanse in front of them with a distinct look of either reverence or determination. She couldn't tell which, and quickly averted her gaze before he could catch her at it. "Yes, it's beautiful," she agreed, partly because it was and partly because she didn't want to ask what he thought about out here. Satisfied with her answer, he drew her back towards the wall behind him until her foot nudged something soft on the ground. "Oh—" He'd spread out thick woven blankets and even arranged pillows for them to sit down, protected from the scattered rocks beneath their feet, and she couldn't help but blush at all the effort he'd gone to. Even in the dim moonlight she could see that he was immensely pleased by her reaction. He gestured for her to make herself comfortable.

He tossed his hair from his face as he settled back, propped up on one elbow with a sickening ease that only inflamed her self-consciousness. She arranged herself beside to him – but not too close – her back against the mountainside and arms looped around her knees in front of her. Rensai plucked a tangerine from a basket between them and begin to peel the fruit, and she had only just looked away when he said, "Here," and held out half for her to take. Even with her eyes down, she noticed the smile on his face when she murmured her thanks.

"Your father would strangle me with his bowstring if he knew I brought you out here, especially at this hour," he said as he popped a wedge of tangerine into his mouth. "But you won't give me away, will you? You won't give us away."

So few words and already he'd made her just as guilty as he. Linked them together in this momentary escape. She looked down at the fruit in her hands and managed a laugh, but when no words found their way to her lips for a few moments afterwards, he looked up at her again, serious this time.

"Yujin." He measured the syllables of her name with a tenderness that juxtaposed his war paint. "If you're nervous to be here, I won't make you stay."

"No, no," she stammered, shaking her head quickly. "I wouldn't have come otherwise, this is lovely, I just don't want either of us to get in trouble." The words tumbled out of her mouth before she could wonder how many excuses were reasonable.

"We won't get caught," he laughed with the same self-assuredness that made her so anxious to be alone with him in the first place. "Here." He pushed himself up again, and she could barely make a sound of protest before he'd eased her down closer against him. "Lay here. Your father isn't watching. You can relax."

Her head was on his chest. Her head was on his chest and he had put it there himself and his arm arced around her so he could split off another slice of tangerine, casual as could be, while meanwhile her heart threatened to burst from her ribcage. Was this something he did often? Did he practice? How had he done it so quickly, laid her down like that before she'd even really taken in what was going on? She didn't know where to look: her options were the sky or his chest, and choosing one might look like avoidance of the other; she didn't know the rules of the game he was playing but she felt like she was losing.

"Do you visit the ocean often?" he asked, interrupting her private panic. His voice was a deep, warm rumble in her ear. "With your father?"

Yujin willed her voice into steadiness. "I have a few times, but I wouldn't call it often."

"Hm. Did you like it?"

"There wasn't much to see," she admitted, wondering at his reason for asking. "We usually camped along the edge of the forest out of sight, a ways back from the shore. But at night I watched the Imperial boats come in, and I remember the sound of the waves." The glow of the lanterns against the water, the music and laughter that drifted towards the shore—had they been celebrating? The Imperialists were always celebrating. She'd waded out up to her knees to watch before one of her father's archers yanked her back into the safety of the trees.

"And the mountain? Is it to your liking?"

She wrinkled her nose. She'd been brought up there, she knew no other home. Their kingdom had been carved out long before she was born, their territory spread down across the lower precipices; spearmen and archers crawled across the crags and protected the rock that in turn sheltered them. But the air had grown danker since then, heavy with the scent of whatever was being mined far below. Sometimes the shadows and smoke felt more oppressive than protective.

"Of course," she said regardless. "Isn't it your taste, too?" A thing like Rensai could only be grown from rock, hard and tall and pale, but his chest rose and fell in a sigh.

"We lived beside the sea once," he said. It was a familiar refrain, one that served as the start of more than a few mountain legends. "The shores were ours, and no Imperial boats cut through our waters then. The mountain will do for mining. But we deserve more. We'll use it to burn our way back to where we came from." She knew the story as well as he did, but she couldn't imagine why he carried it with him the way his tone suggested. They'd been driven back long ago, before both their fathers and certainly before her and him; they'd pressed too far into Imperial lands and lost almost all of their own as punishment. A simple game of war, her father had explained to her. They'd gambled on their ambition and lost. Now they hunted instead of fished, mined the rock instead of tilled the land. They flourished anyway. They adapted. There was no shame in that loss anymore.

"We will win it back one day." He reached across and lifted her chin, drawing her gaze to his. "I will win it back."

The blaze in his eyes shone even in the moonlight, and for once she stared back, puzzled. "But we don't need the sea," she pointed out. "We have the entire range, plenty of resources."

"You are too sweet." He smiled, and his indulgent, warm tone suddenly felt too much so. An renewed wariness coiled in her stomach. She pulled away from his hand, he let her go without protest, and she blinked back down to his chest. The elaborate tattoo that covered his torso, his back, his arms – it was an image of ocean waves. She had never dared look for long, but there it was, water crashing over rocks, the swirl of the wind that churned the foamy breakers, all etched into his skin, mapping out the destiny he'd planned for himself. His eyes were on her again. They lingered on her lips, and his chest rose and fell just a fraction faster than before, awaiting whatever she chose to do next. She could think of nothing to say so she chose silence, and just as his brow began to furrow in disappointment she settled back down against him. His arm shifted beneath her and slid around her waist to hold her closer, but that was all. They both stared up at the sky, the scent of tangerine light in the air and his heartbeat thrumming in her ears.