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Curiosity Killed The Cat

Chapter Text

Tanya sighs as she sinks down in one of the chairs circling the round table in the middle of her chambers after dismissing all those fussing over her. Now the only person who remains in the room with her is Yangcha, the masked Daekan warrior Tagon ordered to guard her.

Her eyes drifted over to the warrior, his mask hiding half of his face, standing alert at the doors. Sensing her gaze, he turns his head to meet her eyes. His dark eyes are confused as he stares right back at her.

What?

She’s not sure whether or not he directed the thought at her, but she answers nonetheless. “Why do you wear that?”

His gaze drops from hers and he turns away. Still, she hears his answer, though she knows it wasn’t his intention.

Because I know things that can never be shared.

Tanya begins to remove her jewellery. “Is it a punishment?”

Yangcha flinches, but doesn’t turn her way. A stab of pity swells in her gut like the beginnings of an upset stomach. Tanya frowns and stands once again.

“Yangcha,” Tanya calls his name. He turns to her. A warrior awaiting orders.

Tanya picks up a more simple necklace from her selection of jewellery. This one is a simple leather strap with a small, purple crystal hanging from it. She walks over to Yangcha and holds it out. He looks at the necklace and then up at her, confused.

“I do not know why you are being punished, but I believe it cruel to take away one’s right to speak. This necklace was given to me by one of my people. She said that it was to symbolise freedom.”

Yangcha’s brows furrow as if to say, ‘why are you giving this to me?’.

“I am giving this to you, because one day, I will free myself and my people. I will make my own freedom. You may not get that opportunity. However, if you choose, you may speak freely with me. Whether you do that through thought or by actual spoken words, or not at all is up to you. This necklace is me returning that freedom to you.”

Tanya sees his adam’s apple bob up and down. She maintains his eye contact, watching the storm rage in his black eyes.

After a long moment, he reaches up a hand and gently takes the necklace. He stares at it where it rests in his palm and moves it side to side slightly. As if testing to ensure it’s not a trick. He then raises his head to meet her eyes again and she gives him a small smile.

He blinks slowly. Once. Twice. Then looks down at the necklace again before lifting it up to loop the leather band around his neck. Yangcha looks down at the purple crystal hanging over his chest.

When he looks back up at Tanya with a conflicted look in his eyes, like he’s unsure what to do, she changes topics.

“Now, I’m exhausted and need a nap.” She lets out a breathy laugh, although it’s still quite tense. She turns and sits back down, angling her head towards the ceiling and closing her eyes.

Why don’t you lie down?

Tanya looks up at Yangcha’s voice – although it’s not really his voice. She waves a hand in dismissal. “Myeongjin will be back soon with a new task. If I get too comfortable I won’t want to move. Best to stay like this.”

Yangcha nods and Tanya resumes her previous position. When she cracks her eyes slightly, she sees Yangcha tuck the necklace beneath his tunic and armour, before he once again stands alert and on guard.

Though there’s a large part of her that tells her to ignore him, that he’s dangerous and a monster. Tanya can’t help but hear the small part that is curious about the strange masked assassin.

Chapter Text

Tanya and Yangcha were alone once again. Not in her chambers this time, but rather at the steps overlooking the immortal flame. It had been almost a week since Tanya’s gift to Yangcha, and although he would comment on something briefly, Yangcha had still remained quite silent. Tanya didn’t want to push him, but the more time she spent with him, the more curious she became. 

 

She turns to face him and he stares right back. Tanya points at the mask covering his face. “Isn’t that annoying to wear all the time?”

 

Yangcha blinks at her. It’s the first time she’s directly asked him a question since she said he could talk to her. 

 

For a moment she thinks he won’t answer. No, he replies. I’m used to it.

 

“Do you ever take it off?”

 

Yes. When no one is around.

 

Tanya makes a point of looking around the empty cavern before meeting his gaze again. “Well, no one is here now.”

 

Yangcha furrows his brow, his eyes making a quick dart around the room as if to confirm what he already knew. Is that an order?

 

She sighed and gave him an exasperated look. “No, it’s not an order. You don’t have to take it off. Although, I am curious as to what you look like without it.” She cocks her head to the side in thought. “Perhaps less intimidating?”

 

Tanya pouts a little when he continues looking at her that same indifferent look in his eyes. Apparently he doesn’t find her attempt at humour very amusing. 

 

It’s not supposed to be taken off.

 

She returns his deadpan look. “It’s not supposed to be something people wear in the first place.”

 

For a moment, Tanya thinks she sees him flinch slightly, but his eyes remain steely. 

 

Yangcha blinks slowly as he thinks over her words. Then, hesitantly, with stiff movements, he reaches up to his face and tugs at the strings so that they fall loose. He pulls the mask away from his face and lets it dangle from his fingertips at his side. It takes a few moments for him to look back up at Tanya.

 

Tanya barely manages to stop the gasp from escaping her lips. She wasn’t exactly sure what she was expecting, but this wasn’t it. She supposed that Yangcha had always had a certain handsomeness that came with his youthful eyes, well-built frame and mysterious demeanour, but with his face constantly covered it was difficult to tell. But now, with the mask gone, she can’t help but admit that he’s slightly more handsome than she expected.

 

A handsome face doesn’t take away all the damage he’s caused, Tanya scolds herself. 

 

She clears her throat and looks towards the immortal flame, flickering but never dimming.

 

“That must feel better,” she said, still not looking at him. She sees his reflection in the water, however, and watches as he looks down at the mask in his hand as he opens his mouth to take a deep breath of air. 

 

Much.

 

From the way he tenses slightly, Tanya can tell that that wasn’t something she was supposed to hear. She pulls her lips together to suppress a small laugh. 

 

It’s unfair that you can hear my thoughts but I can’t hear yours.

 

This time she does let out a soft laugh. Instead of replying properly, she turns to him and sticks out her tongue. 

 

Yangcha laughs; a soft, breathy laugh that causes his eyes to thin and his front teeth to be exposed. For a split second, Tanya’s heart stutters.

 

She raises her eyebrows in surprise. “Oh? Did you just laugh?”

 

Yangcha averts his gaze to look at the flame and then at the water. Anywhere but her. 

 

The corners of her mouth lift up in amusement. She looks back at the flame. “Don’t be embarrassed. You have a nice laugh.”

 

She turns her attention to his reflection again as he turns to look at her. His face isn’t clear, but she can easily imagine the confused look. Tanya is well aware that she confuses Yangcha, and she thinks that she very much likes that. 

Chapter Text

When the sun has disappeared and the world is dark and quiet, Tanya sits and talks to the moon and the stars. Some nights she cannot see the moon, but the stars that wink back at her remind her that she is still there and she will listen. Tonight, the moon provides a soft beam of silver light in through her open window.

 

As if she was called to it, Tanya walks over to the window and sits upon the ledge, her legs curled up underneath her. The stars are few tonight , Tanya notes as she studies the sky.

 

“No fewer stars than there would be if every star could be seen,” Mother Choseol had told Tanya along time ago when she had noted the same thing. Mother Choseol went on. “No matter what troubles you should encounter, or if you just want to share something, the stars and the moon will always listen. Even if you cannot see them.”

 

“Really?” Tanya had asked, watching the sky with curious eyes. “They’re so far away, though. How can they hear me?”

 

Mother Choseol smiled at her. “Because they possess skills of which we cannot even imagine. The stars are old and wise. Trust them when you are lost and seek help.”

 

“You said that we become stars in the next life. Does that mean that our people are up there listening? One day we’ll be listening to people?”

 

“Perhaps. We cannot be sure of paths we have not yet taken.”

 

As Tanya looks up at the sky now, she wonders whether one of the few stars she can see is Mother Choseol. Though she hopes for her listening ear, Tanya knows to trust whoever is up there listening. So, she speaks.

 

“Today was hard,” Tanya starts, a bitter stinging in the back of her throat. “I suppose not as hard as yesterday, but…” She trails off and swallows harshly, each word she pushes out like thorns brushing against the inside of her throat.

 

Closing her eyes, Tanya takes a slow, deep breath. Although she tries to sound strong, her words barely come out above a whisper. So quiet she fears that even the stars, with all their skills, would not be able to hear. “I am lost.” She opens her eyes again and looks at the moon. It brings her a small comfort. Pulsing in silver as if telling her that she’s listening. “I am lost and I do not know the way. I am trying, I really am. But I am unsure of what to do next.”

 

She doesn’t realise she’s crying until a salty tear gets caught on the corner of her mouth. And once she starts, she cannot stop. 

 

Tanya brushes tears from her face as they fall until she just bows her head and sobs into her hands. She sobs and sobs until her eyes sting so much she think they might be on fire and her throat burns as if trying to set alight the knot caught there.

 

It was easy to push aside the fear and sadness when she was focused on a goal, but as more days pass and the distractions clear, it becomes increasingly more difficult. As much as she wants to deny it, the truth is that Tanya is alone. And she is lost and scared.

 

She doesn’t realise Yangcha has come to her side until she hears his voice. His deep, clear voice that pushes aside all of the fog clouding her mind and making it hard to breathe.

 

Are you okay?

 

Tanya rises her head and blinks away tears. “Obviously not,” she answers, her voice awfully hoarse but she can’t muster the energy to care.

 

I don’t know what to say.

 

“Sometimes, there is nothing to be said.”

 

Who were you talking to?

 

Tanya looks his way at the question. His expression is hard to read behind the mask, but his eyes are set with an emotion Tanya can’t quite pinpoint. On anyone else, it might be worry, but with Yangcha it was always hard to tell. 

 

She looks back to the sky and points. “The moon, or the stars. Maybe both.”

 

I don’t understand.

 

“The stars and the moon will listen to you. No matter what you have to say. Just talking about what’s on your mind doesn’t necessarily fix the problem, but it does feel like a weight lifted off your shoulders.”

 

Tanya looks back at him to see his eyebrows furrowed in confusion. 

 

“Do you wish to tell them anything? It doesn’t matter what. They don’t judge.”

 

Yangcha gives Tanya a look that almost makes her laugh, and half heartedly points to his mask.

 

“They can hear you even if you don’t speak. Just… direct your thoughts to them.”

 

How would they hear me?

 

Tanya has a small, soft smile on her face as she tells Yangcha the words Mother Choseol once told her. “The stars and the moon possess skills that you and I can’t even imagine. They are old and wise.” She directs her smile at Yangcha as if to reassure him. “You can trust them when you cannot trust anyone else.”

 

Yangcha looks at her and then up at the sky. He takes a step closer to the window. His side brushes against Tanya’s shoulder for a split second and Tanya has to reign in the urge to shiver at the brief contact. He looks back down at her and she gives him a nod. And as if that was all the confirmation he needed, Yangcha looks back up at the sky.

 

Tanya watches him as he talks with the stars. The moon’s reflection shines in his dark eyes and though she doesn’t know what emotion has lit that fire behind his eyes that makes them glimmer like they do, she thinks that he looks almost magical right now.

 

He turns back to her and she quickly looks away, pretending to study the small cracks that spiderweb along the windowsill. 

 

Did you hear me?

 

She looks back at him and shakes her head. “No. I suppose you have more control over that now.”

 

Yangcha nods. He looks like he’s about to add something but a voice outside her chambers cuts that thought in two. 

 

“Niruha,” Myeongjin calls, “Lord Saya would wish to see you.”

 

Tanya can’t help the small sigh she lets out at the request. “Of course he would,” she mutters to herself, but begins to get up anyway. She knows that denying to see him would just lead to more complications later.

 

This late at night?

 

At Yangcha’s voice, she turns and gives him a shrug that tells him she’s just as clueless as he is. They move forward together. Tanya taking a seat at the table and Yangcha taking position beside the door.

 

“Okay,” Tanya calls back. Even if she wanted to make up an excuse, she was far too exhausted.

 

The door opens and Saya enters with as much grace as poise as he would any other time. Tanya finds it slightly creepy how consistent he is. Yangcha bows as he passes, but Saya doesn’t even glance in his direction.

 

Saya smiles at Tanya as he always does, and she quickly studies his face and reads his expression. Saya is quite unpredictable when it comes to his moods and Tanya always takes extra care when greeting him to make sure it doesn’t quickly become unpleasant. 

 

Today, Saya seems relaxed and calm. Tanya smiles back and stands, bowing her head. “What brings you here so late at night?”

 

Saya opens his mouth to answer but freezes, his smile dropping. Tanya instinctively tenses and over his shoulder she sees Yangcha calmly rest a hand on the sword hanging from his side. Tanya forces herself to relax, just a little. She wasn’t sure how, exactly, Yangcha felt about Saya, but she can’t say she’s confident enough to know that he would strike Tagon’s son should things go south. 

 

“Have you been crying?” Saya asks, and Tanya scrambles for an answer.

 

“Yeah, I, uh,” Tanya forces a laugh, “I got something in my eye. My eyes started watering like crazy. I’m fine now, though.”

 

Saya nods slowly, as if unsure whether or not to believe her. After a moment he shakes his head and the easy smile returns to his face. “I just wanted to come see you. I haven’t seen you all day, I was wondering how you were.”

 

Tanya blinks in surprise. That’s it? “Oh, well. I’m fine, I suppose. I haven’t been doing anything different than usual.” Gods, she wanted this conversation to be over already.

 

Saya tilts his head to the side, that smile still on his face. It was beginning to make her a little uneasy. He plays with the ends of his hair as he studies her for a long moment before nodding, as if content with the conclusion he’s reached. “Well, I’m glad.” His gaze drifts to the open window behind her quickly before settling back on her. “I should go see my father before it gets too late.”

 

Tanya nods, glad to be done with whatever this was. “Have a good night.” She bows her head and Saya returns the gesture.

 

“And to you,” Saya says, before spinning on his heel and exiting the room. Yangcha once again bows his head as he passes, but Saya just continues on.

 

Tanya counts to five after Saya leaves and then falls into the seat and sighs, hand pressed to her chest. Time spent with Saya always makes her anxious. There’s no telling how it could end and what the consequences of a simple slip of the tongue could be. Saya is not exactly violent in the way other men can be, but he’s capable of many evil things that Tanya can’t even think about without feeling sick.

 

You don’t like Lord Saya?

 

She looks up at Yangcha’s question. He’s facing her now with a confused look on his face.

 

Tanya sighs. “It’s not that I don’t like him. It’s just… complicated. We’re just so different . I don’t know.”

 

It seems complicated. Some days you seem really close and other days it’s like you hate him.

 

“I don’t hate him,” Tanya’s voice lowers, becomes almost solemn. “I don’t think I could hate him even if I wanted to.”

 

Why?

 

“I don’t think you can hate someone who looks so much like someone you love.” Tanya traces patterns over the table with her fingertip. “Eunseom and Saya are from two completely different worlds. They’re different in so many ways. But every time I look at Saya, I can’t help but see Eunseom.”

 

Tanya looks up at Yangcha and he’s watching her with steady eyes. She sees him swallow harshly before looking away, something akin to regret simmering in his onyx eyes. She doesn’t dwell on it; doesn’t have the energy to. Instead she stands and moves back towards the bed.

 

“I suppose we should sleep before the moon disappears,” she says as she sits on the edge of the bed. Yangcha looks up at her and she gives him a tired smile. “Goodnight, Yangcha.”

 

Yangcha bows his head and moves for the door. 

 

Goodnight, Tanya.

Chapter Text

Yangcha sits across from Tanya in a field of green, watching her tangle her hands in the grass to entwine the blades before letting them spring back to their original place. Her skin is a warm gold beneath the sun that stands alone in the clear sky. She smiles softly and her eyes are closed. 

 

Happy. Tanya looks happy. Yangcha can’t help but smile as well.

 

Sensing his stare, she opened her eyes and looked at him with raised eyebrows. She tries to maintain a serious look, but her the corners of her lips tug upward more and more with each word she says. “Why are you staring at me?” Her smile is full now.

 

Yangcha shrugs, returning her smile with one just as wide. “Maybe I just like looking at you.”

 

Tanya scoffs, but her ears turn red and she averts her gaze back to the grass. 

 

The wind picks up and whips Tanya’s hair across her face. Yangcha laughs when a bit gets stuck in her mouth and she chokes when trying to spit it out. 

 

“You know,” Yangcha muses, “we can always go get some food if you’re hungry. You don’t have to eat your hair.”

 

Tanya glares at him. “Was that supposed to be a joke?” Yangcha laughs, but Tanya isn’t so amused. She turns up her mouth and shakes her head, tutting. “Well, at least you amuse yourself.”

 

Yangcha lets out another laugh.

 

His laughter softens until he’s just watching her with a big, stupid smile on his face. However, it’s quickly gone when he catches the familiar spark of mischief in her eyes, and it’s less than a second before his feet are underneath him and she’s launching herself in his direction. 

 

Yangcha is up and running by the time Tanya lands in the spot he just vacated, but Tanya is quick and is already starting after him. He laughs as he dodges trees and low bushes, Tanya’s screeches of ‘get back here’ and ‘you better run’ following his trail. 

 

Tanya may be quick, but Yangcha is skilled. When he manages to get out of Tanya’s sight for a second, he swings himself up onto a low hanging branch and climbs, hiding among the higher branches. He watches as Tanya runs towards the base of the tree, slowing slightly as she looks around. She stops a little ways in front of the tree, and he knows she’s trying to listen for his footsteps. 

 

Yangcha doesn’t waste time waiting for her to find him and jumps to the ground, tackling her from behind. Tanya spins, but a second too late and they both go flying to the ground. Yangcha puts one hand beneath her head and the other around her middle to soften the impact from when she hits the ground.

 

Now Yangcha is positioned on top of Tanya. Him smiling down at her while she glares up at him. Were it anyone else but each other, they might have been bothered by the closeness, but for them this was normal and this was nice. 

 

Tanya’s breath fans his face and with his chest on top of hers, Yangcha can feel her heart beating rapidly. Or maybe that’s his?

 

Tanya blows a breath of air in his face and he closes his eyes against it. “Get off me, you’re heavy,” Tanya mutters, but the half-heartedness of it makes him smile. 

 

Yangcha opens his mouth to say something, but before he can, the world goes bright and he has to close his eyes against it.

 

---

 

It takes a few moments for Yangcha to gather his bearings when he awakes. Not in a field of green surrounded by tall trees, but in a cot he barely fits in, in a room so small it could classify as a cupboard. 

 

He sits up and rubs his eyes, then shakes his head. He’s not wearing his mask, but in this world it does exist, sitting on a pile of his outerwear at the end of his bed. It exists as another part of him in this world, because whoever’s eyes he was seeing through was not him. Not even if he could feel their every emotion and hear their every thought as if it were his own.

 

But then there’s the other question. What the hell was that?

 

Was that a dream? He thinks to himself. But it couldn’t have been, right? Then if it wasn’t a dream, what was it? 

 

He tries to put it at the back of his mind for now, but his thoughts pepper him with thoughts all morning. When he’s dressed and standing guard at Tanya’s door, he decides that it must’ve been a dream. He may not have had any other dreams to compare it to, but he knows what other people have said a dream is. Another life while your sleeping. He was asleep when he saw it, he’s sure. 

 

So, a dream, then. But why? People like him couldn’t have dreams. It’s always been that way. So how did this happen? It just didn’t make any sense. 

 

Maybe Tanya would know something, he thinks to himself as he watches Tanya prepare for something. He can’t remember what. He scolds himself for that. He should be focused on protecting her. 

 

He puts a stop to another thought before it can fully form. This is ridiculous. Just do your job. So, he does. He imagines himself moving between rooms in his mind. Slamming the door shut and locking himself in a cold, empty, white room that allows for no distractions. This is the place he goes to during battles. A place where he can be mentally while his body does the necessary job physically. 

 

“Your guard seems a bit out of it today,” the low, unnervingly calm voice is the first thing Yangcha hears when his focus sharpens once again. He forces himself to bow to Lord Saya, swallowing his pride and pushing past the overwhelming annoyance he feels towards the Lord. 

 

From the first moment he met Lord Saya, something about him had made something uneasy settle in his gut. When he first saw the man by Tagon’s side, he had to rein in the urge to strike him down where he stood. He tried to convince himself it was because of his striking resemblance to the Igutu he had been ordered to kill, but the hostility he felt towards Lord Saya was unlike anything he had ever felt before.

 

Lord Saya doesn’t spend too long in front of Yangcha as he moves to sit beside Tanya who offers him a polite smile. Yangcha grinds his jaw once as he turns to stand back at attention. Seeing the Lord so close to Tanya Niruha grinds at every one of his warrior instincts. But, there’s nothing he can do. Lord Saya is not a threat. Not yet, at least.

 

“I didn’t realise you paid my guard so much attention,” Tanya quips back playfully. 

 

“Well, when one is protecting someone so precious, it’s important to be attentive,” Saya says, and Yangcha bites the inside of his cheek so hard he tastes blood.

 

Stupid dream, Yangcha thinks to himself, messed with my head. Even as a thought his voice sounds horribly bitter.

 

Tanya clears her throat, obviously uncomfortable with the remark. Lord Saya, however, seems quite oblivious to her discomfort despite his usual observational skills.”Yes, well, should we get started?”

 

Saya nods and leans closer to Tanya as he draws out a map and lays it on the table. Tanya had asked the Lord if he could tell her more about the different tribes and people living in Arth so she would have a better understanding of the people she would be ruling. Lord Saya had eagerly agreed, happy for an excuse to spend more time around her. Tanya, however, had been rather hesitant to ask, but after a long debate with herself, she decided this would be the easiest way. 

 

She had asked Yangcha for his opinion, but he just shrugged and watched in mild amusement as she bickered with herself aloud. 

 

Time seemed to pass painfully slowly as Tanya and Saya pointed to parts of the map and discussed all of its people. Tanya was curious about a lot of things that Yangcha didn’t find useful. Although, when Saya would unknowingly agree with his thoughts, Yangcha would quickly find an excuse to change his own opinion. Everytime he did, he would scold himself for being so ridiculous, but he would continue to do so anyway. 

 

When Saya leaves, Tanya drops her head on the table and groans. Yangcha turns her way with a confused expression. “So many people, so little time,” Tanya mutters to herself, so quietly that he almost misses it completely. 

 

He doesn’t know why, but he moves to stand a little closer to her, as if it will help her hear him better. In truth, she could probably hear him if they were standing in different rooms. Their conversations didn’t have the same limits other people’s did.

 

I still don’t understand why you’re doing all this.

 

Tanya lifts his head and looks at him from beneath hooded eyes. She looks so tired, Yangcha notes to himself. So different from how she was in the dream.

 

“Because, I have to gain their support and their trust,” Tanya says, and he can even hear the exhaustion in her voice. The heaviness weighing down her words as if just getting them out of her mouth took a tremendous amount of effort. “And, maybe, I just want them to have a better life.”

 

What do you mean?

 

“I mean, your people. The people of Arth. You all seem so miserable that it makes me feel bad. I’m using them for my own gain, but…” Tanya rubs her eyes. “I just want these people to see that they don’t have to live like this.”

 

Yangcha remains quiet. He’s never really looked at the people he used to walk among everyday. As awful as it sounds, he never thought that they were unhappy. He never gave any of them a second thought. Never gave any other way of life a second thought. 

 

“I see it in you, too,” Tanya says. He looks back at her and the look in her eyes makes something heavy drop in his chest. “I don’t even think you realise how awful this all is. You should be free and happy. You shouldn’t have to live your life the way someone else wants you to. That’s not freedom.”

 

Tanya looks at him and the dream immediately springs to his mind. Of running free in a field with no buildings and no smoke in sight. Of a warm tickling feeling in his chest and his steps light. He pushes it down. Afraid that Tanya will be able to see that field and see the tiny part of him that really wants that.

 

She sighs and drops her gaze. “Sometimes I think that you’re no more free than I am.” Something about that makes him feel like someone just punched him in the gut and all of the air left his lungs. His mask feels a lot more stuffy than it used to and his chest burns with every breath he tries to take. 

 

Suddenly, Yangcha finds himself feeling awfully sad and the yearning to be on that field with no cares grows so large it scares him.

Chapter Text

It was during lunch, as her people sat around her chatting away to each other about their day, that Tanya had a thought. A thought that had her eyes drifting over to Yangcha, who, as always, stands alert at the door. The others don’t notice that her attention has drifted elsewhere. They’re too wrapped up in all the new things they’ve learnt in this strange land. So, Tanya puts her focus onto her curious thought.

 

Narrowing her eyes slightly in concentration, Tanya directs a thought towards Yangcha. As if speaking to him without using any words. Like he does with her. She starts small and simple.

 

Can you hear me?

 

Yangcha doesn’t flinch or show any indication that he heard her. So she tries again. Repeating the same sentence over and over, her voice getting louder in her own mind with each try. Still, no response.

 

She purses her lips and goes to try again, but a small hand snaps their fingers in her face before she can get the thought out. 

 

Tanya looks over to Doti who stares at her with an expectant look. “Tanya,” she says, her voice as small as her. “Are you okay?”

 

Tanya smiles and rubs the top of Doti’s hair, messing it up from where it was braided. “Yes. I’m just a little tired from being so popular.”

 

Doti smiles at her and turns back to her conversation with Father Yeolson, who speaks with such enthusiasm about all of the strange new inventions he’s learnt to use that it hurts Tanya to think about taking that away.

 

When she looks back to Yangcha, he’s now watching her. Maybe he did hear me? Tanya thinks to herself. She directs the thought at him once more.

 

His voice comes to her mind then, but it’s not a response.

 

Why are you staring at me?

 

Tanya lets out a tiny huff of breath and turns back to the table of people. 

 

She thought that maybe since she could hear other people’s thoughts, she could also share her thoughts with other people. It would make it easier to speak to Yangcha when there’s other people around. 

 

He’s comfortable enough now to sometimes make small little quips when she’s in a conversation with others. It means that, technically, he gets the last word. But it’s only because she can’t respond without looking crazy. If they were in a situation where she could speak freely, she would always get the last word.

 

Tanya’s noticed that a lot of the small conversations her and Yangcha have had lately end in playful bickering. And though she probably wouldn’t admit it, she’s come to enjoy their conversations. Despite how short they are. More now that she’s discovered that Yangcha actually does have a sense of humour, even if it only really consists of lame jokes and bad plays on words. 

 

When the Wahans leave and it’s just Tanya and Yangcha once again, he asks her again.

 

Why were you staring at me?

 

Tanya hums and rests her chin on her fist as if in thought. “Maybe I just wanted to?”

 

Yangcha flinches. A visible, very real flinch that has Tanya feeling an awful mixture of confusion and guilt. She sits up straight again and clears her throat. “Sorry. I just… I wanted to see if I could make you hear my thoughts too. Guess it didn’t work, though,” Tanya trails off, looking away and wanting the ground to swallow her up and save her from this awkward situation she managed to get herself into.

 

Yangcha nods and turns back to his position with his back aligned with the wall behind him. 

 

She plays with her sparkly bangle, trying to distract herself, but her thoughts lead back to the masked assassin. 

 

What was that? Why did he flinch? She’s pretty sure she’s almost never seen Yangcha actually flinch. It’s not like whatever she said was offensive or hurtful, was it? So what upset him?

 

Tanya shakes her head to clear her mind and presses the palms of her hands into her eyes, as if that would help. Then she drops the bangle into the small box it lives in and stands.

 

Tanya walks over and stands in front of Yangcha, who looks back down at her with curious eyes. 

 

“I’m tired of being in this room,” she says. “Let’s go somewhere.”

 

Where did you want to go, Niruha?

 

Tanya purses her lips and looks to the side, thinking back to the map she’s spent several hours studying. “Somewhere less busy,” she mutters, more to herself than to him. After a few long moments of silence with Tanya thinking of where to go, Yangcha’s thoughts cut into hers.

 

If you would wish, I know a quiet place to go. 

 

Tanya looks back at Yangcha with a surprised look. She’d never imagined Yangcha would offer to take her anywhere. She hadn’t even thought to ask him. It makes sense that he would be knowledgeable about these things. He’s probably been to more places than she can even think of.

 

“Okay, lead the way.”

 

Yangcha blinks at her.

 

I will direct you from behind. I am your guard, I cannot lead you.

 

Tanya sighs. She had forgotten about that. “Okay, well, direct the way?” 

 

Yangcha makes a small huffing noise that could be akin to a laugh, but she doesn’t even have the time to process it before he’s giving her his first direction.

 

The two pass many guards and maids as they leave, every one of them bowing and moving to the side as they pass. Tanya keeps her head high as she walks. Give them no reason to doubt. Act strong, even when you aren’t. She’s long since learnt that the second you show these people any weakness, they’ll rip you apart.

 

Her legs still shake slightly and breathing becomes harder than usual, but she forces herself to keep her gait steady and her breaths even. Yangcha at her back is a comfort, though she’d deny it until she’s blue in the face if someone pointed it out. Tanya is confident that he will catch her should she fall. He did when she was first announced High Priestess, when they still had trouble coming to terms that they were now on the same side. 

 

It also helps that he’s very intimidating and people are more than happy to stay well away from him.

 

As Tanya follows the directions she’s given, she tries to bring up the map in her mind, to try and figure out where they may be going. It proves too difficult and she gives up.

 

When Yangcha announces that they’ve arrived, the place is no more clear in Tanya’s mind when it was before they left. They were in a quiet place, yes, but it was no different from any ordinary clearing in the woods. In fact, she’s pretty sure she’s been in this clearing before.

 

She spins to face him, a small frown tugging down the corners of her lips and a tension in her forehead from furrowing her brow. “I’m confused.”

 

Tanya sees his cheeks rise from beneath the mask and she realises he’s smiling. She tilts her head to the side slightly and narrows her eyes. 

 

Yangcha reaches up behind his head and tugs of his mask. He smiles at her, his eyes flickering with amusement and Tanya ignores the way her heart skips a beat. 

 

“What?” Tanya asks, slightly annoyed that he finds her so amusing.

 

Yangcha shakes his head and looks at the ground, still smiling. His hair curtains across his face, but Tanya can see that he’s smiling wider now, his lips pulled back to show his teeth. 

 

Follow me.

 

Yangcha walks ahead of her and she frowns at his back a moment before following. She jogs up to him, trying to match his pace and walk beside him.

 

“I thought you weren’t allowed to lead,” Tanya asks. She leans forward, trying to catch a glimpse of his face and read his expression without falling face-first into the dirt. 

 

No one’s around to see.

 

Tanya tuts, pouting. She falls behind again and has to jog to catch up. “Will you slow down? You’re acting like we’re being chased.”

 

Yangcha lets out a breath that Tanya takes for a scoff. 

 

I’m not walking fast. You’re just slow because of your tiny legs.

 

Tanya stares at him, slack-jawed. “Hey! My legs are not short!”

 

Tch. Denying it will do nothing. It’s just here.

 

Tanya glares at him as he walks ahead again, slipping behind a slope of rock and out of sight. She follows him, eyeing the rock suspiciously as she walks behind it, as if it might collapse on her any second. 

 

The tunnel is dark and it takes a moment for her eyes to adjust. Yangcha continues walking ahead of her, nothing but a smudge of black in the dark. Pressing her hand to the wall for guidance, Tanya follows Yangcha until everything goes bright again and she has to close her eyes against it.

 

When she opened her eyes again, she can’t help the gasp that comes from her, followed by a dazed ‘wow’. 

 

The tunnel opens up to a cliff’s edge, overlooking the ocean. Grass covers the entirety of the ground and small white and yellow flowers bloom amongst the grass leading over the ledge so that some of them hang off the side. There’s a cluster of large rocks in the centre and a path clear of flowers from where boots must have walked over it numerous times. Yangcha moves to the side and watches as she walks around the rocks and to the edge to look at the water.

 

The water is a dark blue that gets darker the further out it gets. Tanya tries to look for land on the other side, but doesn’t see anything. The water crashes into the cliff below where it goes white and foams before settling. With the sun shining directly on it, Tanya thinks the water looks like the sparkling blue gems that are set in her jewellery.

 

She spins, turning to see if she can see the wooded area they just came from behind them, but it’s just a tall wall of rock. 

 

“How did you find this place?” She asks Yangcha, turning back to look at him. 

 

Yangcha leans against the wall, fiddling with the mask hanging from him fingers. 

 

Sometimes I get lost on missions. I found this years ago. I don’t have anywhere to go when I get rare days off, so I just started coming here.

 

Tanya watches him, a strange tickling feeling vibrating in her chest. Yangcha doesn’t meet her eyes and she swears, just for a moment, that the tips of his ears go red. 

 

“Why did you bring me here?”

 

Yangcha looks up and shrugs, still unable to meet her eyes. Instead his eyes drift behind her to the sparkling blue water. 

 

Felt like a waste to be the only person who knows about it.

 

Tanya smiles. It was nice that he brought her here. It made her feel nice. 

 

We should head back soon, though, Niruha.

 

Tanya scrunches her nose at the name but nods anyway, sitting down on the largest rock facing the ocean. As she does, she feels a small weight lift off her shoulders. Sitting here, she feels like she has some small part of her old life back. Her freedom back. And though she knows that’s something she will probably never get back, it feels nice to pretend just for this moment. 

Chapter Text

Smoke billows across the sky, covering the treetops and the once clear sky in murky grey. Yangcha coughs against the burning in his throat and the pain in his chest, his eyes blurring from the tears that try to combat the sting. He walks past dozens of fallen bodies. Angry, red blisters cover their bodies and their stiff faces are frozen in fear, their glassy eyes unseeing. His chest aches for a reason other than the smoke as he forces himself to move past them, to not look for familiar faces.

Tanya. Where is Tanya? He thinks as he makes it to the boundary of their village, the wood turned to a pile of smoky grey ash. 

Someone darts past him, screaming and sobbing, stumbling over themselves as they try to run. Yangcha closes his eyes tightly against the horrid sound. When he opens them again the person is gone. He says a quick prayer for their safety. 

Yangcha takes another step and suddenly his body feels a lot lighter. He looks down at the ground quickly to make sure there’s nothing he can trip over and when he looks up again the smoke is gone. His lungs clear and his throat soothes. He’s no longer looking at small, smoking houses, some entirely destroyed while others cling on for dear life. Now he’s looking at… well, nothing. 

The sky is dark and covered with stars but he sees no moon. The ground is barren and appears to be covered in a thin layer of fog. He looks around, trying to figure out where he is, but all he sees is the same thing for miles all around him. 

“Tch. You mortals, such fickle little things you are.”

Yangcha spins around at the sudden voice. A lilted voice that somehow manages to sound gentle and hostile at the same time. 

Where there was nothing but fog before now stood a lean woman. She wore flowing robes of dark purple that seemed to flutter in a wind that Yangcha could not feel. Her hair fell in a sheet of silken silver down her back and over her shoulders. Her skin was darker than anyone’s he’s seen before and she watched him with icy blue eyes. She might have been the most beautiful person he’d ever seen were there not something malicious in her clear gaze.

“Who are you?” Yangcha asks her, his hand straying to the weapon that hands from his waist only to find it’s no longer there. 

The woman watches him with an amused smile. “Poor thing. Your two realities are beginning to blend together, you must be awfully confused.” She lets out a small laugh but there’s nothing kind in the action.

Yangcha studies her, his body stiff with a warrior’s stillness. He didn’t need a weapon to take down this woman. He could fell men twice her size with nothing but his bare hands. 

As if reading his thoughts, the woman makes a tutting sound again. “I wouldn’t waste your time, mortal. But, if it eases your restless thoughts, if I wanted to kill you, I would have done it long ago.”

“Is this a dream?”

The woman laughs again. “Hmm, well, I suppose you could call it that. Although, it’s not quite accurate.”

“If this isn’t a dream, what is this? Who are you?”

“Mortal, you ask all the wrong questions. Although I won’t hold it against you. You mortals are always the same. But, I will answer you nonetheless.” The woman moves forward with fluid grace, almost like water flowing over a smooth rock. Yangcha tenses but she stops a few feet away from him, taking a seat on a large rock he had not seen there before. The woman gestures around them, “this is what we call Lino.

“It is an infinite space that exists between the worlds. Mortals cannot be brought here of their own free will because they lack the skill, which means something else has brought you here today. I believe it’s not the first time you’ve been brought into Lino, though.”

Yangcha remembers the last dream he had, of running free in a world of green. “The dream I had before. Was that because I was brought into this place?”

The woman cocks her head as if in thought. “I’m not sure, but I’d imagine you would have to pass through here to get to where you went.”

This just keeps confusing him more. “Where I went? Where did I go?”

The woman lets out an annoyed sigh. “As I said, this is a place that exists between worlds. If you crossed through here it obviously means you went to another world. Probably one where a different version of you already exists otherwise it would’ve been awfully complicated for whoever seems set on dragging you through here.”

“Who brought me here?” Yangcha got the sense that his questions were irritating the woman, but he was too confused to care. None of this made any sense to him.

“Are you even listening to me, mortal? I do not know. All I know is that you passed through here when no mortal should be able to.”

Yangcha shakes his head as dizziness creeps in, a dull throbbing pain threading itself through his temples. “This doesn’t make sense,” he mutters to himself, clutching his head in his hands. He feels the strange woman watching him and his every instinct is telling him not to take his eyes off of the woman but he just can’t force himself to look up. 

“Well, I suppose this is goodbye for now, mortal. Your consciousness appears to be pulling you back to your body.” The woman stands and Yangcha peers up at her. She smiles down at him, a horribly wicked thing that seems so out of place on her face. “Farewell.”

She shakes her hand in a sharp wave before she blurs and fades completely. Yangcha would’ve moved to investigate her sudden disappearance further had a wave of nausea not hit him before everything goes black. 

Chapter Text

Yangcha had been different lately, Tanya had noticed. She had thought that they were starting to get closer, but recently Yangcha had become more withdrawn, never initiating conversation and answering her questions with the least amount of words possible. It shouldn’t bother her as much as it did. They were fighting on different sides of the same war, it didn’t make sense for them to be as close as they were.

Yangcha was Tagon’s most loyal soldier, he had killed and enslaved her people. She shouldn’t be upset that they had reverted back to being no more than High Priestess and guard. And yet she found herself missing their secret conversations and the odd level of comfort they had come to find in each other. Or so she thought they had found in each other, and she can’t help but wonder what had sparked the sudden change. 

Before, Yangcha would linger even when it was no longer necessary, his presence constant enough that Saya had made snide remarks about the warrior’s attention to duty on several occasions. Now, the masked assassin was almost impossible to get a hold of despite being her guard, retreating the moment he could. 

Tanya scolds herself whenever she feels that persistent discomfort tug at her chest when she turns to speak to a warrior who is not there. Don’t be stupid, she scowls inward, you shouldn’t care about people who could turn on you without at moment’s notice. So she forces herself to continue through her fairly routines like nothing had changed. Like nothing was wrong. Even if she felt like she had lost yet another person.

Myeongjin lays down a page of leather with symbols on it in front of Tanya. “Niruha,” Myeongjin addresses her and Tanya looks from the page up at Myeongjin. “Forgive me, but you needn’t do something like this. I can have someone else do it for you.”

Tanya shakes her head. “I want to do this. The gods have allowed me to be High Priestess, I must do everything in my power to respect and fulfill the position to the best of my abilities.”

Myeongjin gives her a hesitant look, like she might want to press the matter more, but Tanya gives her a reassuring smile and she backs away. 

Returning her attention to the page in front of her, Tanya reads over the lists of names and charges. It was at meeting the other day when one of Tagon’s many disciples had brought up troubles being caused with the camp they were keeping prisoners who had broken laws. The soldier, tall and burly, streaked with mud and stunk like he hadn’t bathed in months, had bowed before Tagon and told him that the camp was becoming too crowded and the prisoners were causing problems because of it. 

“What sorts of crimes have these people committed?” Tanya had asked. It was the first she was hearing about any camp of this sort. Most criminals were executed or banished. She hadn’t heard of any other way these people dealt with criminals unless they were enslaved. The man turns to her with wide eyes and Tanya could’ve sworn he seemed almost scared. Most of the Daekan warriors look at her that way since the death of the one she cursed. 

“It varies, Niruha,” the man keeps his gaze at her feet as he speaks. “Most of them are there for theft, though.” Tagon had then promptly told the man he would give him an answer soon and dismissed him. After the man had left, Tanya turned to Tagon and requested that she be allowed to come up with a solution for this problem. 

Tagon had raised an eyebrow and beside him Taealha chuckled quietly into her hand. “Why would you want such a job?” Tagon asked. Fiddling with items of the shelves behind them, Saya leaned in to listen to the conversation. 

“I am the High Priestess. I should have some responsibility when it comes to these types of matters, also. After all, it is the gods who decide punishments and I am the one with direct contact to them. Allow me this. I will do my best.”

Tagon had watched her wearily, deciding what he should do in this situation. After a few moments, he spoke again. “A girl such as yourself shouldn’t meddle in situations such as these. Are you sure you can handle it?”

She could feel Yangcha’s stare on her back, but the masked warrior remained silent even in her mind. He offered no warning or advice. So, she pushed him to the back of her mind and levelled her gaze on the bigger concern in front of her. “I can handle myself. It’s not the first of this type of situation I’ve been forced into.” Tagon had smiled, but still seemed hesitant to let her do the job. Perhaps he was worried that she had an ulterior motive, and perhaps she did, but she wasn’t in any position to go against Tagon at the moment.

Surprisingly, it was Taealha who took her side. “Let’s give the girl this job, Tagon. If she fails, then they’re just measly criminals who can be killed without consequence.” Tanya looks towards the older lady, but she keeps her gaze on the table, boredom dancing along her features. 

In the end, Tagon had shrugged and told her to do as she wished, and now here she was. She struggles to read through it, the lessons with Saya helped her understand most of the symbols she was looking at, but there were still some that meant nothing to her no matter how much she racked her brain. 

Gaesil of Arthdal was locked in the camp for the crime of thievery. Aged 12.
Moran of Arthdal was locked in the camp for the crime of contempt. Aged 15.
Karin of Arthdal was locked in the camp for the crime of desertion of post. Aged 11.
Mamyeon of Arthdal was locked in the camp for the crime of contempt. Aged 8.

Tanya feels sick as she reads through the list. A couple of months ago, she had never knew these words existed or what they meant, and a part of her wishes she was still as clueless. These people were so young and they were being locked away from life. The more time she spent in this place, the more confused she became. Surely, this wasn’t necessary. 

She turns to Myeongjin and the other woman bows her head. “This camp,” Tanya says, but the word feels wrong coming out of her mouth. A camp isn’t what she imagines when she talks of this place. “I would like to go there. To see the people staying there.”

Myeongjin gives her a look as if she had just told her she killed someone. Although, for these people, that’s probably not the worst thing you could do. “Niruha, forgive me, but I’m not sure that is such a good idea. You should not give these people your time.”

“Every person deserves my time unless they prove otherwise. Let us go.”

Myeongjin looks hesitant, but she would not go against the order of the High Priestess. “Yes, Niruha.”

Minutes later, a guard joins Tanya’s side where they all stand gathered to make their way to the criminal camp. The guard is not Yangcha. Tanya eyes him wearily and he keeps his head down. He looks like a Daekan warrior, clad is black with braids in his hair and a sword dangling from his waist. Facial hair grows around his mouth, braided where it falls under his chin.

“Who are you?” Tanya asks the man, wary of the stranger. “Where is Yangcha?”

“Niruha,” the man ducks his head further, “Yangcha has been given another duty for today. Tagon offers his apologies for temporarily taking your guard and has sent me in his place.”

Tanya still watches the stranger with trepidation. Something about this situation makes her stomach swirl with anxiety. “When will Yangcha return?”

“I am unsure, Niruha.”

Tanya pushes back the uncomfortable feeling that swirls through her entire body and nods.

It takes them quite a while to reach the camp as it’s located away from the main villages as to keep them as isolated from their old worlds as possible. When they arrive, Myeongjin moves forward to speak to one of the guards at the gate. The man blanches as he glances back at Tanya and rushes inside to speak to someone else. Soon he comes back out and makes a gesture for her to follow him inside.

When they walked in, someone Tanya assumed was the head of this camp came out and bowed to her. “Niruha, what brings you to a place like this?” As Tanya looks around she wonders if maybe this as a mistake. If she thought the slaves smoothing stones had it bad, that was nothing compared to this place.

Shackled men, children and women walked around the camp followed by overseers who all held whips at their sides. Everyone was too gaunt, their skin too pale. They all looked like walking corpses. One of the children stumbled, their knees splitting as they hit the ground with an awful thump. The overseer closest to the child spat out a curse at the child a second before he brought up his whip and cracked it down on the child’s back. 

The scream that left the child’s mouth was one of the most horrific things Tanya had ever heard. It was a high-pitched sound writhed with pain and fear that broke midway through with a crack. Blood sputtered out of a wound on the child’s back, but he was so underfed and unhealthy that barely any blood came out. The child did not cry or whimper as it was pulled back to his feet. He simply wavered in his place, a blank look on his face.

Tanya’s face was fixed in horror as the child turned his gaze towards her and collapsed. The overseer went to step forward again, whip raised, but Tanya yelled out “stop!”.

The man stopped and looked up at her, but Tanya paid him no mind as she ran to the child and covered him with her own body. She heard Myeongjin call out for her somewhere behind her but she kept her focus on the child. He was barely breathing as she pulled him into her lap, running her fingers along the side of his face to brush the hair from his eyes. 

His breathing shook as he struggled for breath and Tanya’s heart picked up in panic. This child couldn’t be more than ten, and yet if he didn’t get help immediately he would not live to see another day. “Somebody get help, now!” Tanya yells over her shoulder at no one in particular. 

A salty tear runs down her cheek and drops onto the child’s face. “You’re going to be okay, I’m going to help you,” Tanya tells the boy, her voice shaky. He smiles up at her and something inside her snaps in two. She twists herself around to face the wide-eyed audience behind her. “Hurry!” She yells and two guards break off, running in the direction of the only decent shelter in this place.

Hours later and Tanya sits on a log in a cold room inside the camp. The boy had not lived. She had failed. She broke her promise. Her body had run out of tears and her chest ached. This was not right. It was not fair that someone so young had to live a cruel life just to meet a cruel end. She did not understand why these people had to live like this. 

She had gone around after the boy had passed, asking if anyone knew anything about him. His name, his age, if he had family. One of the overseers had pushed back the hair on his neck to look at a marking on the back of his neck. He showed it to another overseer who flipped through a book to find his information.

Jami, they told her his name was. Aged 9. Desertion of post. After almost an hour of talking to people so afraid they couldn’t bear to look at her, she finally learnt about the boy. Jami was brought here because he managed to escape from his old life in slavery. He ended up returning to his old master because he couldn’t survive on his own. His master had handed him over to an officer who had brought him here. 

He died because he tried to escape an unfair life. How many people here had similar stories, Tanya wondered, how could she possibly help them? She felt lost and defeated. She was tired. She wanted to help these people but she didn’t know how.

She looks up at the slats of wood tied together over her head to make a roof. Similar to the ones she was raised in, but still so different. Mother, what should I do? Tanya didn’t expect an answer, but it still chipped at the hole in her chest when the air remained still and silent. Sighing, she stands and makes to leave the room, but the Daekan warrior guarding her steps into the room, stopping her in her tracks. 

“Niruha,” he says, voice quiet and almost hesitant. Tanya looks up at him, waiting for him to continue. “Someone would wish to see you. If you would allow me to take you to them.”

Tanya furrows her brow, “who?”

“Forgive me, Niruha, I do not know his name, but I know that he holds a high position here.”

“He holds a high position and yet you do not know his name?”

The warrior bows his head apologetically. “Forgive me, Niruha. It has slipped my mind.” Tanya studies the man for a moment. He doesn’t seem to be lying and there’s nothing about him that makes her heart quicken in warning. It could be a trap, but it wouldn’t make sense for one of Tagon’s warriors to kill her when Tagon still needed her.

So, albeit hesitantly, Tanya nods and allows the warrior to guide her out of the room. He leads her behind the room they left and to a man who stands blanketed in the dark, his face hidden beneath a dark curtain of hair. He looks up as Tanya steps closer, but she stops midstep.

Run, a whispered voice calls to her. A gust of wind flutters through her hair as the Daekan warrior gestures for her to continue. Run, mortal, buy yourself time until he arrives, the voice tells her again, this time it’s more of a growled order.

Not thinking twice, Tanya spins on her heel and makes to run. She makes it about a step before the warrior who was supposed to be her guard seizes her arm in a vice-like grip and pulls her back towards them. She screams, trying to alert the others, but no one comes. She fights against the warrior holding her arm. She kicks at his legs and pushes at his chest, but she’s no match for a trained warrior twice her size. 

Be quick, be smart, Tanya tells herself and she stops her struggling. Wait for an opportunity and seize it. The other man moves forward and unsheathes his sword. Oh gods, oh gods. The man holding her moves so that her back is pressed to his chest, both of his hands gripping her arms. The other man moves forward and raises his sword to strike her. With his hands above his head, the man’s torso is exposed, and as a desperate attempt at survival, Tanya pushes her weight onto the man behind her and slams her feet into the other man's gut. 

He stumbles forward, the air pushed from his stomach and Tanya pushes herself further into the man holding her, pushing them both out of reach of the man wielding the sword. “You bitch,” the man holding her curses and grabs her by the neck. He’s too strong and she’s too slow. He slams her head into the side of a nearby tree and the world spins before fading. 

Chapter Text

After that strange dream that might not have been a dream, Yangcha decides that it might be best to distance himself from Tanya. A strangely difficult task, Yangcha had found. He hadn’t realised just how much he had come to enjoy the interactions with Tanya. Forcing himself to not make comments when she couldn’t answer so she would bite her lip and cut him a glare when no one was looking, and standing guard outside of her chambers instead of staying inside and talking. It had made him weary by the day’s end and he falls asleep as soon as he collapses onto his small bed in his tiny room. 

 

Maybe it’s because of how exhausted he’s been, but he doesn’t have another dream for weeks. The day he does, he’s greeted by the same strange woman he met last time that he thinks strangely resembles the moon. 

 

“Hello, mortal,” she greets, a wicked smile dancing on her lips, turning her beauty into something dangerous. She looks the same as she had last time with her flowing robes and perfect hair, only this time she looks slightly more amused. “You’ve returned, I see. I’m glad. I don’t usually get to play with humans so openly.”

 

Yangcha narrows his eyes. “Why am I here?”

 

The woman sighs, “how am I supposed to know that, mortal?” Moments pass of them watching each other, waiting for the other to break first. The strange woman gives in, a bored look crossing her face as she sighs again. “I do not know why you are here, or how you got here, but I do know this.” She purses her lips, an unreadable look in her eyes, and she seems unsure as to whether or not she should continue. Yangcha waits in silence, still eyeing her as if she was about to pounce and attack him.

 

“I know that nobody brought you here,” she finally says after a long moment.

 

Yangcha thinks back to their last conversation when she had told him that mortals lacked the ability to bring themselves into Lino, she had called it. She had said that she assumed someone had brought him here, and it wasn’t her and it couldn’t have been himself. Now she was saying that nobody had brought him here. It didn’t make sense.

 

“What do you mean?” He asks. 

 

“What I mean is, that you appear to be quite the special little mortal. Even the humans you call ‘gods-touched’ cannot enter Lino of their own free will.” Everything this lady says seems to be in a mocking tone. 

 

Yangcha still did not understand, although, what she gave him wasn’t much of an explanation. “How am I here?” He asks, hoping for a proper answer this time.

 

The woman taps a finger to her chin and tilts her head to the side as if in thought. “Well, since your last visit, I had wondered the same thing and took it upon myself to figure it out. I had thought it would lead me to the being who brought you here, but it turns out there was no such being. 

 

“Of course this then just made me more curious. So, I wandered into the world that you stumbled in from when we first met and I think I’ve figured it out.”

 

Still watching her warily, Yangcha gulped, a small part of him worried about what she had found. But the part of him that needed to know what was happening to him heavily outweighed the feather-light fear. 

 

“And what did you find?”

 

Like an animal hunting its prey, the woman stalks over to Yangcha with a wolfish grin. Slender fingers fiddle with the ends of her pearly hair, looking like the dark side of the moon against the silken silver. As she moves closer, a strange feeling washes over him and he wonders why this woman – that he’s certain he’s never met before their last encounter – seems so familiar. Before he can puzzle over the thought any longer, she speaks again.

 

“Are you sure you want to know?” She asks, the playful tone returned to honeyed voice. “You might find it quite shocking.”

 

Yangcha hesitates a moment, that feather-light fear tickling against his instincts. He pushes the thought back. He needed answers. “Tell me.”

 

She raises her eyebrows and shrugs, “okay. You were brought her by yourself – well, another version of yourself, but still you. They say some things are even more powerful than the gods. Considering what I’ve learnt, I’d say that was true.”

 

“I don’t understand.” It didn’t help that this woman never seemed to give a proper answer.

 

“A common phrase that mortals seem to use, I find,” she says, waving a hand in the air. “But, for all the kindness in my immortal heart, I will explain it to you. Lino is a place between worlds, as I’ve already explained, and there is an infinite amount of worlds and an infinite amount of people of all sorts. A lot of worlds have the same people in them, but the chances of the same people meeting in different worlds is quite uncommon, and if they do meet, the chances of their relationships being the same is almost impossible.

 

“However, you seem to have quite the talent for doing the impossible. You, somehow, managed to meet the same person in two different worlds and have the same relationship. Well, for you it’s still developing, but time is irrelevant in Lino.”

 

Yangcha could feel the beginnings of a headache pushing against his temples. So there was a different version of him and someone else he knew in another world that had the same relationship they had in his world. As crazy as it seems, it somehow made sense. 

 

“That doesn’t explain why I’m here,” Yangcha says.

 

“Somehow, a version of you from that other world, pulled you into his own world. The dreams you had, where you were seeing life through another person’s eyes, that was you, just not from your world,” the woman replies.

 

“Why?”

 

“Because he has lived his life and seen its end. In his own world there is nothing he can do, the past cannot be undone. But, in your world, it has only just begun. I suppose he wishes to change what happened in that other world.”

 

“How can he do that? How can he pull me into his world, I mean.”

 

The woman sighs, genuinely not having a sure answer. “I can’t be sure. But, it wouldn’t be the first time I was shocked by what a human could do when they’re brimming with vehement determination. And I suppose love can be quite the vicious little thing.”

 

Yangcha furrows his brow. “What do you mean?”

 

She waves a hand in dismission, “time runs short and I don’t think I could explain even if I had the chance.”

 

The woman begins to fade just as she had last time before he woke up. Her silver hair turning translucent and her clothes rippling as they, too, begin to fade. Desperate, Yangcha calls out to her before she can fade completely. “Wait!”

 

Her body becomes whole again and her hair falls over her shoulders in silken silver once again, annoyance twitching at her features. “What is it, mortal?” She snaps at him.

 

“Who are you?” Yangcha asks, his words rushed out just in case she decides to fade out of existence before he can get the words off his tongue. She raises a brow, and when he’s fairly certain she won’t disappear without warning, he adds, “how do I know you? How do you get here?”

 

The amused look returns to her face, a mischievous spark in her icy eyes. “Look at the sky,” she tells him in a silken voice, “don’t you notice something missing?”

 

Pushing back his annoyance at her lack of straight answers, Yangcha raises his head to observe the blanket of stars above them. It looks just as it had the last time he was here, a million stars against an onyx sky. No moon, though. He freezes. Surely she couldn’t mean what he thought she did, right?

 

He looks back at the woman who looks back at him with a knowing smile.

 

“I am not nameless,” she tells him. “The next time you wish to talk to me, please address me by my name. It’s been too long since I’ve heard someone call it.” For a moment, she looks sad, but when he blinks, it’s gone.

 

“What is your name?” Yangcha asks, his voice quiet.

 

This time when she smiles, it is not a thing of wicked amusement, but a kind, gentle smile as she says, "Leiluna."

Chapter Text

For the first time in months, Yangcha is called to Tagon as soon as he wakes. As he passes Tanya’s chambers, he nods to Myeongjin and the other ladies waiting outside the door and they nod back at him. Standing beside them, stoic and stone faced is one of Arth’s official guards clad in their uniform black and red. Something inside him twists in discomfort at the sight of someone else in his position, but he pushes back the thought and continues ahead.

 

When he walks into the meeting room, Tagon is already sitting at the head of the table with what looks like a report of some kind laid out in front of him. Yangcha bows his head in silent respect as Tagon looks up and offers a simple smile as a greeting. He then waves his hand, ushering the other people out of the room without even opening his mouth. He doesn’t start speaking until the door has closed behind the last person.

 

“Yangcha, you look well,” Tagon says, and Yangcha nods his head again. The only response he can give. Tagon chuckles, a deep, amused sound that Yangcha used to understand as a type of approval. Now, however, he can hear a tinge of malice in Tagon’s tone that he never managed to catch before – or he had and had simply ignored it. Something had changed in Yangcha during the past few months. He knew it, and if he allowed himself to think about it he might figure out how and why. But he doesn’t.

 

“It’s been a while since I’ve given you any orders,” Tagon continues, completely oblivious to the storm that seems to be constantly raging in Yangcha’s head these days. “You must’ve enjoyed the break.”

 

A joke, Yangcha silently notes. Humour between trusted companions. Tagon’s attitude towards the masked assassin had not changed, but Yangcha’s unwavering loyalty was beginning to lose its stability. He was changing. Yangcha pushes it to the back of his mind. 

 

“There’s been a ridiculous rumour sparking in one of the smaller towns of Arth and I would like to put an end to it before it gains any real ground. It could become quite troublesome should it begin to spread and agitate the people. Can you help me?” Though Tagon phrases it as a question, it’s nothing less than an order.

 

Yangcha nods without hesitation. He’s a soldier – an assassin. He lives off of orders. He doesn’t question the orders he receives or anything his superiors might say. He does what needs to be done. That is what he’s made for.

 


 

Yangcha is thankful the rumour turned out to be just that. It made his task a lot simpler, even if it was still quite bothersome. A man from an abolished tribe with a deep-set grudge that had turned him less than sane had killed a loose horse and ran around crying ‘Neanthal’. Fortunately, the man was known for coming up with less than credible stories around town and the townspeople were hesitant to believe him.

 

After retrieving the animal corpse and having their local doctor confirm to the people that it was in fact a human’s doing and not a Neanthal, Yangcha then set his sights on the man. The problem he must take care of. He couldn’t leave this man alive to walk to a new town and spread more rumours based far from reality. His orders were clear. 

 

Killing the man in the middle of the town could cause later problems, so instead Yangcha pulls him along and past the treeline by the back of his shirt. When he decides they're far enough into the woods, Yangcha pushes the older man onto his knees and draws his blade.

 

The man begins pleading, rubbing his hands together in front of him. “Please spare me,” the man begs. “I don’t want to go with the pretty girl, yet. Please… please spare me.”

 

Yangcha pauses. Pretty girl? What was this nutter talking about now?

 

As if sensing Yangcha’s hesitation, the man continues, working with the opening he was given. “I saw them… The monsters in black. That’s what the people call your kind. Merciless killers who will cut down anyone who may get in their way. That’s why they killed her. The pretty girl in the white dress. The demons hunted down and killed the goddess, feasting on her soul like it should be their last meal. That’s what the Lady of the Moon told me – that’s what she showed me.”

 

Yangcha thinks his heart might have stopped beating inside his chest. It wouldn’t be the first time the Daekan Forces had been referred to as demons or monsters. That wasn’t what made his heart leap into his throat as fear and shock pushed against his every nerve. The pretty girl in the white dress; the goddess. Surely he wasn’t talking about Tanya. Though it did sound like an uncomfortably accurate description. And the Lady of the Moon . That couldn’t be Leiluna, right?

 

Yangcha thought he might be sick as he took a step back from the man and stared at him. The demons killed the goddess . Was this man implying that his people intended to kill Tanya? But that didn’t make sense. No Daekan warrior would dare harm Tanya while Tagon still needs her, or after what happened to Moogwang. But no matter what he tells himself that doubt still lingers.

 

So, with one last look down at the man who stares back at him with wide, glassy eyes, Yangcha turns and bolts back to Tanya. Whether or not the man spoke true, or whether or not he had interpreted his crazy message correctly, Yangcha couldn’t take that chance. He doesn’t even give himself the time to convince himself he’s only scared because he doesn’t want to fail the task he was given.

 

The truth is, Yangcha was scared because he didn’t want Tanya to die. It wasn’t because Tagon had ordered him to protect her. It was because, gods damn him, he cares about this girl and wants her to live. 

 

Yangcha darts through the woods, taking every shortcut he knows and making new ones by cutting through any bushes in his way. He makes it to the clearing and slows his steps for a moment, listening to any movement. Silence greets him, not even a cricket singing or a bird chirping. He moves forward again and his foot knocks into something hard. 

 

When he looks down, he sees what looks like a rock covered in dirt and grass, but when he looks closer he notices that the rock seems to shine. Furrowing his brow, he pushes the grass off and takes a step back. Not a rock, he comes to the harrowing realisation, but a helmet. A helmet belonging to the guard he saw at Tanya’s door this morning.

 

Leaving the fallen man, Yangcha moves forward and into the entrance of the Great Shrine. He rushes to her chambers only to find them empty. He does a quick sweep of the room and rushes back out into the hall, his heart beating faster than a hare runs as he tries to think of where she could be. He takes a step towards the shrine when a familiar voice enters his mind.

 

Mortal, you’re looking in the wrong places. Your priestess cannot understand a situation from a report. 

 

Yangcha bites back an angry retort about her never giving a straight answer. He pauses to think over Leiluna's words and then over Tanya’s schedule. The criminal camp, he realises. Tanya had asked Tagon to give her the responsibility of dealing with that problem.

 

He wastes no time as he races back into the woods. Using the map imprinted in his mind from years of training and experience, he takes the shortest track to the camp, dodging the overgrown brush and new trees that threaten to slow him down. His heart leaps in joy when he sees a group of ladies in white.

 

Moving towards Myeongjin, he bows his head in greeting. She looks back at him in surprise, but Yangcha’s too preoccupied looking for Tanya to notice. “Yangcha,” Myeongjin says, regaining his attention. “What brings you here?”

 

Yangcha had never wanted to speak more than he had right now. He wanted to shake Myeongjin by the shoulders and demand she tell him where Tanya was. But he couldn’t, so he leaves her and the others standing there watching him with confused looks.

 

Tanya. Where is Tanya?

 

His movements slow when he spots a familiar sparkling hairpin laying discarded in the dirt. It lays in a cove that leads out the back of the camp, nothing but trees for miles upon miles in that direction. Yangcha takes slow, careful steps into the dark, chain ready in his hands. His mind numbs with a lethal calm as he steps out of the cove.

 

Training helps his eyes adjust quickly and it doesn’t take long to spot an unconscious Tanya slumped against a tree with two men that Yangcha had stood alongside with before standing over her. The one furthest from him notices him first and curses, moving forward with the speed of a skilled warrior and striking at Yangcha. No matter how skilled these men may be, they weren’t anywhere near as deadly as Yangcha.

 

Yangcha catches the other warrior’s wrist with his chain and with a swift pull and a crack, his sword clatters to the ground. The other warrior moves towards him now and Yangcha shoves a foot into his stomach and twists to wrap his chain around the first man’s neck. He struggles against him but Yangcha slams his foot into his other hand and with another sickening crack he slumps and Yangcha snaps his neck.

 

The other man has recovered from his blow and holds up a sword to strike down against the back of Yangcha’s neck. He dives aside within a second of losing his head and the sword lodges in the man’s fallen companion. As he struggles to pull out his sword, Yangcha moves back onto his feet and lowers onto his haunches, unsheathing the blade from his belt.

 

Realising Yangcha’s new method of attack, the man turns and gets in a defensive position, managing to stop the blade from burying itself in his chest as Yangcha launches at him. Yangcha takes his other hand and slams his palm into the warrior’s nose. The warrior stumbles back and clutches his now bloody nose but Yangcha is already moving. 

 

Yangcha hooks a quick blow with a foot to the back of the man's knee and when he stumbles forward, Yangcha catches him by the shoulder and slices the blade through his neck. Blood sputters from the wound and the warrior gags, covering the wound as if he could somehow stop the bleeding. Yangcha watches as he collapses, twitching and convulsing until he finally stills. Only after he’s sure the area is safe does Yangcha move to Tanya’s side, putting one hand on the back of her neck and the other around her middle to sit her up.

 

Tanya. Yangcha directs the thought to her. Tanya, can you hear me?

 

Tanya sturs and slumps against Yangcha. Her head falls against his chest and he uses the opportunity to hook an arm under her legs and pull her into his arms. As he gets back to his feet again carefully, Tanya sturs again, her eyebrows scrunching as she does.

 

Tanya?

 

Tanya groans softly, her eyebrows scrunching again and she pushes her head against his chest. “Yang...cha?” Tanya murmurs, her voice soft and barely audible. 

 

Tanya, can you hear me?

 

“Yangcha?” She says again, her voice still quiet and scared. Yangcha feels a sharp pain in his chest at the realisation. She was scared.

 

I’m here. You’re safe now.

 

Tanya opens her eyes slowly and looks up at him and Yangcha feels another sharp tug in his chest as she does. She moves her legs and swings herself out of his grip, swaying slightly as her feet hit the ground again. Yangcha holds out a hand to steady her but she steps away. He pretends he wasn’t hurt by the small action.

 

“Why are you here?” Tanya asks with a curt tone. Yangcha almost flinches.

 

It’s my job to guard you. I was guarding you.

 

Tanya bites her bottom lip, her jaw quivering. She’s silent for a long time. A long, painful silence that almost makes Yangcha ask her to say something. She looks at the sky, now dark and small clusters of stars can be seen in the gaps of the trees. It’s dark, so Yangcha can’t be sure, but he swears he sees a drop of silver run down her cheek and drop off her chin.

 

“You weren’t here,” Tanya says, her voice cracking and quieting midway through.

 

Yangcha watches her as her eyes meet his and something in him breaks. The look in her eyes was the drop that broke the dam. He reaches up and pulls his mask from his face, dropping it to the ground as he takes a step forward. It feels strange, putting his horribly calloused hand against the soft skin of her cheek, but warmth swirls in his chest and spreads through the entirety of his body as he does. There’s a wet drop under her eye and he uses his thumb to wipe it away. Tanya closes her eyes and another drop falls.

 

“I’m sorry,” Yangcha says, his voice a hoarse and awful sound after so many years of disuse.

 

Tanya startles, her eyes snapping open. Yangcha lets his hand drop back to his side as she looks up at him with wide eyes. “You– you spoke,” she stutters, still looking at him like he might not even be real. “You spoke and not in my mind… that was out loud… that was… you spoke.”

 

He knows this probably isn’t the right time, but Yangcha chuckles, amused at the barely strung together sentences expressing her disbelief and the comically shocked look on her face. Tanya’s watching him still, her eyes larger than he’s ever seen them, and he knows she’s waiting for him to say more but his throat burns from those two words alone. So he smiles and directs his thoughts to her.

 

This felt like something I had to say out loud. Is that… okay?

 

Tanya nods excessively and the beginnings of a smile twitched on her lips. “Yes. Of course it’s okay. I’m just shocked at the sudden change and a little confused. What,” she pauses, hesitant. “What changed?”

 

I wanted you to hear me . And, I think I’m starting to realise that I might need my voice.

 

Before Yangcha can comprehend what’s happening, Tanya has closed the space between them and wrapped her arms around his waist. He freezes when she presses her head to his chest, his heart picking up speed. After a moment, he puts his arms over her shoulders and returns the hug. How long had it been since anyone had hugged him? 

 

“Yangcha,” Tanya says, and he looks down at her expectantly. “I know the armour is necessary, but it’s not very good for hugging.”

 

Yangcha laughs and expects her to let go and step away, but she remains pressed against the hard armour she just complained about. And for just this moment, Yangcha allows himself to be glad that she didn’t. For just this moment, he allows himself to acknowledge that with Tanya he felt safe.

Chapter Text

The journey back is relatively silent. The priestesses that follow Tanya walk quite a distance behind the High Priestess, not willing to risk accidentally upsetting Yangcha even more. Yangcha stays at Tanya’s back, glaring at everything and everyone, primed to strike if someone so much as breathes in Tanya’s direction the wrong way. And while Tanya had given the masked assassin a few annoyed glances at his overprotectiveness, she actually liked having him worry over her.

The moment the group moves inside, two priestesses break off to fetch medicinal supplies for Tanya’s wounds, returning to Myeongjin’s side as they reach Tanya’s chambers. The guards posted outside the chambers bow their heads to their High Priestess and pull open the heavy wooden doors and keep their eyes on the ground as Tanya and her ladies pass through in a whirl of white. 

Yangcha tenses as Myeongjin moves past him, calling forward the two priestesses who were sent to fetch the supplies, but makes no move to stop them. The ladies organise the medicines atop the table quickly, and though Tanya wishes for nothing but to fall into bed and sleep until this whole ordeal has been erased from her memory, she allows Myeongjin to tend to her if only to cease the older priestess’ worries. Tanya nods her thanks as another priestess hands her a small cup of freshly brewed tea that smells of eucalyptus and mint and drinks slowly, the warmth unknotting the tension in her muscles. 

By the time Myeongjin is finally satisfied that she’s done all she could, Tanya’s eyelids are heavy and her mind fuzzy. She barely registers it as Myeongjin and the other priestesses bow their heads and bid her a good night’s rest, only realizing they’ve left when she hears the doors groan shut. With a sigh, she musters up her remaining strength to push herself off her chair and get herself into bed. Exhaustion clouds her senses, however, and before she can take the steps to the bed, her head spins and the ground rushes up to meet her.

A firm grip on her arm catches her before she falls. It takes a moment for the world to come back into focus, and when it does she looks up Yangcha who watches her with worry in his dark eyes as he keeps a hold on her in case she falls again. The sleeve of her dress must have ridden up when she fell because she can feel all of his hard calluses against the skin of her lower forearm where he holds her. 

Tanya blinks slowly as she lets her eyes trace over his features as if this were the last time she would see him and she was trying to burn the memory in her mind. If her mind was clear and her thoughts were little more than a slur of words that she could just barely make out and everything didn’t seem like it was in slow motion, then she probably would have pulled away by now. But she couldn’t. 

She couldn’t pull away from the grip that sent sparks through her nerves because in her tired mind all she could think was that his touch felt nice. Her mind focuses on the warm bronzed tone of his skin and she wonders if it’s as smooth as it looks. Her attention then shifts back to his eyes, as dark as charcoal, and in her drowsy state she’s struck with the sudden longing to learn all about the sorrow trapped within them.

Her eyes then fall upon his mask and she frowns, annoyed at the material obstructing her view. Yangcha’s eyes widen and his grip loosens slightly as Tanya reaches up and pulls the mask away from his face. The material is heavier than she anticipated, the leather thick and warm against her fingers. Horrible weight to carry on one’s face all day, she thinks to herself as she puts the mask on the table behind her. When she looks back up at him, his eyes are still wide and though he doesn’t move away, with their close proximity Tanya can just make out the slight uneven edge to his breathing. 

A strong breeze pushes cool air into the room through the open window and the window pane gets pushed as far as it can open before it swings back into the frame with a bang and then back out again. The noise makes Tanya jump and the sudden chill helps clear away the fog clouding her mind, reality bleeding back in. It appears to have the same effect on Yangcha because he drops his hand from her arm and steps back just as Tanya does.

Tanya turns away as heat rushes to her face from embarrassment. She moves to her bed quickly, falling onto her back with a huff. Squeezing her eyes shut, she inwardly scolds herself for… whatever she did just then. She cracks open an eye to peer at Yangcha who stands where she left him, staring ahead but not actually looking at anything. It takes him a moment to collect himself and when he does he grabs his mask with stiff movements and heads for the door.

Tanya frowns at his back and opens her eyes, thinking he was going to leave without even a word of goodbye, but he pauses and turns back to her a couple of steps away from the door. He gives her a small smile that makes her heart stutter and warmth rush to her face.

“Goodnight, Tanya,” Yangcha says, his words slow and his voice deep and raspy and so quiet she could've missed it, but it was his voice.

Her heart leaps to her throat and she smiles. “Goodnight, Yangcha.”

Tanya watches him as he secures the mask back over his face and moves quietly out the door, shutting it as gently as possible. After a moment, Tanya lets out a shaky breath and wills her heart to calm. She realises at this moment that it’s hard to take deep breaths when you’re smiling but she can’t get it to drop. She shakes her head and slaps her cheeks before rolling onto her side to look out the window at the dark sky.

She falls asleep with ease, the days events weighing heavy on her eyelids, and though she had almost died today, Tanya can’t help but feel that she’s safe. And for the first time in a long while, she lets the flickering candle of hope inside of her come to life once more. 

|||

Strange dreams that she couldn’t make sense of plague Tanya’s night and she wakes before dawn, restless. Despite how easily she drifted off last night and how tired she was, her mind was riddled with visions that she couldn’t comprehend and some that’s she not sure she even wants to. As she strips from her dress and throws on the simplest items of clothing she can find, the dreams still claw at the corners of her mind, desperate for attention she’s not willing to give. The long sleeved shirt and long pants are both loose and, unsurprisingly, white, but it’s better than nothing.

The sun is only just beginning to peak its head over the horizon as Tanya moves around her room, lighting candles and desperately looking for activities to occupy her mind. First, she flits through the small collection of books she keeps in her chambers. When she had told her father that she was learning to read, he had excitedly delivered her some books to start her off. However, she barely gets through a page, her lack of concentration making the characters indecipherable. 

With a sigh, she pushes the pile of books aside and instead reaches for a small chest, pulling it in front of her. She opens the chest and pulls out a bottle of ink, a pen, and some parchment. If she couldn’t practice reading, maybe she could practice writing. She places a blank piece of parchment beside one filled with neatly drawn characters and copies one after the other, taking her time. She tries to do a few by memory, but soon gives up and just takes to copying.

Her head pounds, but Tanya grits her teeth and forces herself to continue. Rolling her shoulders, she puts all of her attention of completely filling the page in front of her, not willing to stop until she no longer has any room to write. Her progress is slow and by the time she’s finished, the sun spreads warm rays of light across her chambers and she can hear birds as they flit around outside, singing to each other. 

There’s a knock on her door and she calls for them to enter as she packs away her writing materials. Yangcha enters as she pushes the small chest back beside the stack of books, the door closing behind him is the only sound he makes as he walks over to her on silent feet. 

He blinks in her appearance as she stands to greet him and although he’s seen her covered in dirt, blood, and sweat without bathing for weeks and clustered amongst her people who smelt just as bad, she can’t help but feel slightly self-conscious under his gaze. She pushes the feeling aside, though, and walks over to him. 

“I need to go out,” she says.

Yangcha nods. Where do you wish to go?

“Anywhere,” Tanya holds his gaze. “Take me anywhere.”

|||

Yangcha takes her back to the small clearing behind the cliff edge that overlooks the ocean. He didn’t ask why she needed to get out, or why she had dismissed the priestesses for the day. Nor did he ask why she was so spaced out and restless. She was glad for it, though, because she wasn’t even too sure of the answer herself. She just knew she had to get away, at least just for a little while. 

The dreams were still prying at her mind, but most of them still made little sense to her and trying to figure them out only made her head pound and her chest ache. Tanya found it almost cruel that she had woken up in this state when she had fallen asleep smiling just last night. Perhaps it was the universe trying to tell her something. Perhaps it was trying to tell her that she couldn’t be happy; that she couldn’t have hope. 

It was colder outside than she had thought it would be and her clothing provided little protection from the chill. The cold burned through her skin and her nerves, freezing her blood, but there was a coldness inside her that made the frigid air seem almost warm. A coldness that fought against the candle within her that she had only just relit. 

A more positive side of Tanya told her that, if she would let it, that flame could melt away all of the coldness. The other side of her, however, wondered if that cold would then come back after that flame had exerted all of its energy and swallow her whole, dragging her into a place too deep to escape from. 

“Are you okay?” Yangcha’s voice cuts through her internal debate, and she turns to face him. His voice is still raspy and quiet, but it’s clearer than it sounded yesterday, and for a brief moment Tanya wonders if he’s been practicing. 

Tanya looks at him. His mask is set aside, his brows are furrowed and concern sparks in his eyes as he watches her. She wonders why Yangcha, of all people, had managed to help rekindle her hope. Not her father, or another one of her people. Not even Saya, the twin to her closest friend. But Yangcha.

Her gaze drops to his chest where a small purple gemstone hangs from a thin leather band, rested atop his chest armour. Freedom. That’s what she had told him the necklace meant when she gave it to him, for whatever reason, she can’t remember. At that time, Yangcha had no voice. And then slowly, he started speaking to her through directed thoughts, and yesterday he had actually spoken. 

Tanya smiles at him and nods, turning back to look at the rolling ocean. As she takes a deep breath of the cool, salty air, she lets that flame inside her chest grow, and grow, until that candle of hope melts away all the icy doubt and the cold comes only from the chill in the air. She puts her fears aside and lets herself hope.

She will be strong and she will gain power. She will fight. She will be free once again, and happy.

And she will have hope. Hope that will withstand even the coldest of winters and strengthen her will and strength. 

She will have hope.