Shin-ah always woke with the sun; he couldn't help it. His eyelids, his blankets, his hands, and now the cloth of the party's larger tent were enough layers muffling the dragon sight to let him sleep without noticing every little motion outside, but nothing could block out the light. Even back in the cave-village, through the rock, it had still reached his eyes, and then as now, it always woke him.
Traveling with Yona and the others, that usually made him one of the first ones awake, but not the very first. Someone would already be there sitting the last watch, sometimes Yoon would already be starting breakfast — and usually, Jae-ha would already be gone.
Shin-ah was a bit frightened of Jae-ha — the one who could fight with a smile, who could talk to people and get them to like him so easily, who was always playing tricks and trying to get a look at Shin-ah's eyes — but Shin-ah was also fascinated. The time he'd been splashed with that strange, sweet liquid, the fear and especially the fascination had become irresistibly intense, but they were always there a little, and so when he noticed the green dragon's habit of disappearing for a while in the mornings, he looked.
And there Jae-ha would be, just a little way off from the group so that something was between him and the rest of them, some rocks or trees or just the tent if there was nothing else around. There he would straighten and brush out his clothes, wash himself here and there with a cloth, comb his hair and re-tie it, and also do more mysterious things: rub creams and powders on his face, pluck at his eyebrows, stroke his fingernails with a slip of roughened metal…
And every time, the first thing he did was to take out a metal disc. One side was brown, as the disc was brown nearly all the way through, and that side had a little knob in the center and a pattern of graceful lines sunk into it, but Jae-ha always turned that side away from him and would look constantly at the other side, which was gray-white, smooth, and completely blank.
Shin-ah had gotten into the habit of watching this from a distance, quietly puzzled, but this morning, something felt different. Maybe it was the scent of dew and leaves and earth. Maybe it was little Ao climbing in eager circles around his shoulders, pausing and turning now and then as if looking for an adventure. Maybe it was just time; an old feeling in his muscles, an ache like hunger that always held him back, had been fading bit by bit since that day when Yona reached out her hand to him, and maybe this was the day it was finally weak enough to break through it.
He put on his mask, then slipped quietly out of the tent and into the surrounding trees, toward where Jae-ha was.
Through his mask, for some distance Shin-ah could see the forms of things and enough of their natures to have a sense of color, but to see the finest details and the colors and patterns of light, he had to either get close or uncover his eyes, and so he risked going close. It felt like creeping up on the other children from his village to watch them play a game, knowing that it would all be spoiled if they saw him. Not that Jae-ha would run from him like those children had, but at any moment might turn and say 'Here, you take a turn!' — at some game that Shin-ah had no idea how to play. But when at last he peeked around a tree at where Jae-ha was sitting, the green dragon didn't seem to notice; he just kept looking at his metal disc balanced in the branches of a shrub.
There was nothing between it and Shin-ah's eyes except his mask, and now he could see it — that side of the disc was so white and so smooth that light bounced off it straight and complete, like the blurs and flashes he sometimes saw on his sword but much more exact, like a pool of water but with no ripples to scatter the rays or depths to swallow them. The shape of each leaf glanced off it and toward him, perfectly traced. Carefully, quietly, he leaned this way and that, and the leaves slid across the silver disc like a magical moving picture painted in light.
He felt it when Ao scampered down and leapt from his arm, but he didn't think anything of it until he saw the brown flash of her fur right beside Jae-ha. Shin-ah stretched out a hand, opened his mouth in silent protest, but he couldn't stop her. She stuck her nose into one of the pots of cream with a tiny, thunderous rustle.
"Ah!" Jae-ha saw her and hastily took the little container away. "Now, now, this is more expensive than you realize. Besides, it would probably make you…"
He trailed off, and an intimidatingly broad smile came over his face. As he raised his head and turned, Shin-ah tried to duck behind the tree, but it was narrower than he was.
"If you've come this far, you might as well come closer." Jae-ha beckoned with a wave of his hand. "Since it's you, I'm sure you've seen me put on my face before."
Shin-ah did risk going closer, although he already felt himself on strange ground just from hearing those words put together that way. Thankfully, all Jae-ha was actually putting on was some powder. Shin-ah supposed that it was medicine of some kind; it didn't make him look any different — or maybe it did. Being this close and having the metal disc as a reminder of what to look for, Shin-ah noticed that it did even out the color of the light.
Jae-ha finally sat back with a look of satisfaction — then turned. "Would you like to try it?"
'Here, you take a turn!'
Shin-ah hastily shook his head, making soft sounds to ward it off. He didn't understand the game, and if Jae-ha had an excuse to get his hands that close, he was sure to snatch Shin-ah's mask off and try to steal a glimpse at his eyes.
Jae-ha chuckled as if he'd read Shin-ah's mind — or was so much better at the game that he could see right through such a naive move. "A shame, really. What about your hands? They're quite well-proportioned, you know. Just a little shaping of the nails…"
Shin-ah shook his head again to be on the safe side, but as he curled his hands together, it wasn't merely defensive. He surreptitiously felt at his own fingers, and when Jae-ha sighed and turned to put his things away, Shin-ah risked a glance down.
A flash of reflected light caught his attention as Jae-ha picked up the metal disc. He was about to tuck it into his robe, away from the colors of light —
"That —" Shin-ah started.
"Oh, the mirror?" Jae-ha easily paused before putting it away. He regarded Shin-ah for a moment, then tilted his head with a slow smile. "Have you seen one before?"
Shin-ah shook his head.
"Well, then…" Jae-ha held it out.
This time the fascination was stronger than the fear, and Shin-ah took it, hardly believing even as Jae-ha let go of it so readily. He tilted the smooth, white face toward himself, and the image of his own mask floated up in it, traced in light.
In a way, it was a familiar sight. The mask he had seen and worn all his life was so familiar that he had long since stopped noticing what it looked like, but now he saw it in a new way. The image in the mirror was ghostly and formless, but complete and alive with color, that magical painting in light.
More magical yet, below the mask he could see his own cheeks and chin, his own mouth slack and slightly open. He had seen it before in pools of still water, but never like this. His eyes widened, hidden from the light, yet he saw the motion even so as it flowed softly and subtly down into a slight widening of his mouth, a slight motion of his jaw — the mirror reflected even such tiny changes instantly and perfectly.
He had never thought of the sun striking his face revealing everything, never until the mirror returned every ray back toward him.
"After all, I suppose that's the one thing you can't see," Jae-ha mused, breaking in on his thoughts. "Even a dragon's eye can't look at itself, can it? Not without help."
It was true. Shin-ah couldn't look at his own eyes. He had never even looked at the reflection of them in a pool of water, he'd been so careful about hiding them. The only times he'd caught a glimpse, it had been the reflections in the eyes of other people as they looked at him.
He pulled a deep breath, his shoulders tightening at the memories. Even in Yona's eyes, he had seen that reflection — he had even turned his eyes on her, or come far too close to it. But then, as she had stood in front of him in that Fire Tribe village, looking into his eyes even after proof of just how terrible they were, her face had relaxed, deep and open as though she were seeing something very beautiful.
The colors of light… Were they what normal people saw? That would explain Jae-ha's powder, how he would stare at the mirror, not to mention why other people couldn't see through things and didn't like to move at night…
If Shin-ah looked at the mirror, at the reflected light, would he see his own eyes the way Yona saw them?
He glanced up at Jae-ha. He didn't want to show his eyes to him, but he knew he'd only been handed the mirror for a few moments. He couldn't take it away somewhere private. He couldn't even keep Jae-ha here much longer; there was no telling when the green dragon might lose patience — and no telling when, or if, he might let Shin-ah touch the mirror again.
There was only this one, brief chance. Shin-ah's heart pounded as he shuffled around on his knees to turn his face away. He took a breath to brace himself, but still his fingers trembled as he slowly lifted his mask. The vivid intensity of his full sight slipped in from below, but floating above it, through the mask, there was the mirror reflecting more and more of his face.
He froze at the first glimpse of red on his cheeks.
As he sat frozen, before he could even identify the feeling that had seized him, he saw colors shifting at the edge of the mirror, in the margin beside his own image. A green shape loomed up, then the color of skin, one point of purple — the mirror bounced the light between his own face and Jae-ha's eye.
He can see me!
Finding himself caught tightened the grip of shock to the breaking point. Shin-ah had to do something but he couldn't even think —
So without thinking, he leaped away into the trees with the mirror still in his hands.
He heard a short cry of surprise behind him and realized too late — he couldn't possibly outrun the green dragon. He couldn't even hide from him with their shared dragon blood.
But as he felt that shared blood himself, he didn't feel anyone coming after him.
Well, I had that coming, Jae-ha admitted, sitting back with a bemused smile. Still, the ploy had been worth a try, and Shin-ah had seemed so fascinated by the mirror.
I'll let him play with it for a bit.
Shin-ah hung back from the others that morning. He knew that taking Jae-ha's mirror was a bad thing to have done. Of course he would go back to his friends, even if he was afraid that they would be angry, but he knew that when he went, he would give the mirror back. That way at least he could think he didn't deserve for them to be too angry. And he also knew, however guiltily, that he didn't want to give the mirror back just yet. After all, now it was even less likely that he would ever get to touch it again, and he still wanted that one chance…
But when he remembered how it felt, the freezing grip of it inside him, he hesitated.
It held him back long enough that Zeno came looking for him. That was probably safe, Shin-ah thought. He'd seen Zeno surprisingly serious, and somehow he couldn't think of himself as Zeno's senior, even though the yellow dragon was a year younger and a head shorter. But Shin-ah had never seen him really angry, and indeed Zeno emerged through the trees with his sunny, snaggle-toothed smile — and two bowls of rice with wild vegetables.
"Zeno brought Blue Dragon's breakfast!" he announced. He sat and ate with Shin-ah, and he even left a little in his bowl and offered it to little Ao, who chittered happily and climbed in with her tail perked high.
Zeno playfully turned the bowlful of squirrel between his hands. "Say, did Blue Dragon and Green Dragon have a fight?"
Shin-ah tensed. After the lull, it took him by surprise, and he didn't know how to respond. Had that been a 'fight'?
"Green Dragon said he might have scared you," Zeno added.
Was that all Jae-ha had said? Shin-ah didn't dare ask and just shook his head. Maybe he had been scared, but yes felt less honest than no.
"That's good! Zeno likes to see everybody getting along. And well, this is kind of a secret but…" He looked sidelong at Shin-ah; some of the sunshine went out of his smile but it still seemed genuine. "When Zeno sees Blue Dragon and Green Dragon, he can't help thinking that they're alike."
Shin-ah turned fully to face him, even as the surprise pushed him back. I'm… Shin-ah pointed to himself. "…Like him?"
Shin-ah felt as if he'd heard it in a dream, something so absurd that his mind could hardly catch it. Jae-ha was so good at talking to people — so good at everything, it seemed. His robe was full of magical objects: the mirror, the flute, those creams and powders, not to mention the seemingly endless supply of knives. Shin-ah had a stash of nuts for little Ao, a pouch of spending money Yoon had given him that he wasn't sure what to do with, and not much else.
And yet somehow Zeno thought that they were the same.
Shin-ah could barely even ask: "How?"
"Well, Zeno can't say," the yellow dragon laughed. "Just try not to be too scared of Green Dragon, okay?"
Shin-ah hesitated but nodded.
"So, shall we go back?"
"Mmm, today, I…"
"Oh, Blue Dragon wants some time to himself, huh? Everybody needs that sometimes." Zeno took Shin-ah's now-empty bowl as he got up to leave. "Just don't stay away too long, okay?"
Shin-ah nodded. Just today, he thought. By the end of the day, he would give the mirror back.
When the others struck camp and started moving, Shin-ah followed them at a distance. Having given himself the day, he thought that the mirror could wait; he didn't have to face that gripping shock again so soon.
But as he walked along, thinking about it constantly, he found that waiting only made it worse.
Finally, he sat on a rock and took the mirror out from where he'd tucked it in his robe, being careful that the smooth, white side wasn't aimed toward his face. He had to brace himself even before he tilted it up and looked at the light-tracing of his mask, his mouth below it pressed into a small, tight line —
But the shock was gentle and faded quickly. It seemed to ease his way, and with a final look around to make certain that no one was watching — well, no one but little Ao — he raised his hand to his mask and began to lift it again. He didn't tremble, but he still moved slowly.
And he still froze when he began to uncover the marks on his cheeks. They didn't strike him so painfully this time, but when he saw them, he felt something sudden and intense. What was it?
The marks stood out so clearly on his skin. It felt unreal, that everyone else who saw his face saw this, and until now he hadn't really known it.
The color was a red as bold as blood but more vivid. Blood red was the color of death — he had fought enough enemies who came to the village to know that very well. But this red was a color of life, he thought. As a child, in the old village, he thought he'd once seen a flower with a bit of red like that tucked deep in its center.
In the old village, I saw…
Tears came up in his eyes, not enough to fall. Normally he wouldn't notice them affecting his sight at all, but now that he was looking at light, they did warp it a little until he blinked them away.
Old Ao had had marks on his cheeks just like these. Shin-ah didn't know whether he had remembered them until now, and he was sure he hadn't remembered exactly what they looked like, but now that he saw them again on his own face, he was sure they were the very same. He lifted his mask a bit more, enough to fully uncover the marks but not reveal his eyes, and he knew the shape before he saw it — the two points widening and coming together. He knew it was a perfect match.
It's not him anymore. Now it's me. Shin-ah had spent most of his life realizing that over and over, but no matter how many times he did, it always seemed that he had to realize it again. In the years before, when he had been the one wearing the same mask, fighting with the same sword, trying to avoid the same terrified screams, he wasn't sure he'd known what it meant: 'now it's me.' Not like now, when he could say, 'now it's Shin-ah.' He thought he knew more who 'Shin-ah' was; he was the one who had gone with Yona. With the name she'd given him as something to hold onto, he even thought he could look back on those years before and understand it better: then it was me. 'Me' — the one who had been quieter, the one who had liked going out and walking around the mountain, the one who had wished for friends…
And who had had one friend at least. As Shin-ah stared at the mirror, little Ao climbed up his arm until she reached it and gave an excited "P'kyuu!" at the image of a second squirrel. Apparently the colors of light were what she saw, too. Part of it at least; nosing at the mirror seemed to confuse her, but even so, she leaped into Shin-ah's robe, retrieved a nut, and scampered over to make a friendly gift to the other squirrel. The two of them knocked their matching nuts together with a tiny tik, tik sound. Ao finally dropped her nut to make room — and the other nut vanished too.
As Ao blinked at the other squirrel, Shin-ah noticed that the other Shin-ah's mouth had moved.
'Let me see your smiling face, okay?' He remembered Yona's voice. 'Lift the edges of your mouth and perk up a smile. I'm sure it will be lovely.'
As he looked at it directly and tried to catch it, it slipped away, but for a moment, the edges of his mouth had lifted up all on their own.
The last of the smile fell away. His mouth went slack as he stared. This was the face that Yona had wanted to see. She'd surprised him that time in the village, trying to take off his mask. The same memories that had flooded over him then still threatened — the stories that his mother had killed herself; old Ao shouting 'I can finally die!'; people screaming 'Monster! Don't look at his eyes!'; soldiers lying dead, small and insignificant as if he had scattered a fistful of plucked grass, and then the 'double-edged sword' ripping through his own nerves, bringing him crashing down into the mud and the reality of what he'd done —
After all of that, Yona had wanted to see.
And she had seen, when the bandits came. She'd seen him in the madness of his power; he might have smiled then, and it couldn't have looked lovely. Even after that, she had looked at him with those wide-open eyes that seemed to say 'so beautiful'…
In the mirror, he could see what she saw.
The idea was frightening. Yona had seen, those soldiers and bandits had seen, and only now would he see and know — what if it really was —?
But even as his breath flowed deep and fast, he knew he had to see. He wanted to see. Even just a glimpse —
He lifted his mask up for one moment, focused through the sudden intensity of vision to the little circle of reflected light — then snatched the mask down again and sagged, panting.
Even one glimpse was a shock. It was enough to know that his eyes didn't look like anyone else's. The color was different; the slit of the pupil was different. His eyes didn't look human. That much was true.
But the colors! For one instant he'd seen yellow like sunset, reds and golds like an autumn forest, and he thought he'd caught glimmers of other colors, pink and green and blue, like the way Kija's scales would throw shifting colors of light if the sun hit them just so.
To really see, Shin-ah would have to look again, and he wanted to look again — but not now. His breath was still unsettled. For now, one shock was enough.
And the others were getting farther ahead of him. He wasn't going back yet, but it was time to catch up a bit.
After all, he had given himself the day.
Jae-ha kept watching Shin-ah's presence following them at a distance. Even when the group stopped for lunch, he didn't return, but instead held back a little way off in the trees.
"I still haven't seen Shin-ah today," Yona said. "I hope he's all right."
"Zeno's not worried!"
"Zeno never worries about anything!" Yoon accused, turning leaf-wrapped fish fillets over in the cookpot.
"Rest assured, Princess, he is nearby," Kija said. "He can call to us if he encounters any trouble."
"So he's in earshot, then." Yoon turned back the way they'd come and cupped a hand around his mouth. "SHIN-AH! LUNCH!"
The group sat in silence for a few moments. A bird twittered in the distance.
"He's not moving," Kija announced.
Jae-ha rubbed his temple. This was becoming more and more ridiculous — and less and less funny.
A shadow fell over his shoulder, and he heard Hak's voice. "Droopy Eyes, what the hell did you do?"
"Whatever it was, it's time I go and sort it out." He'd already decided that much for himself and did not intend to give a detailed confession.
Shin-ah was close enough to hear Yoon call him by name. Did that mean he had to go back? But he wasn't ready yet. He still wanted another look…
He would take one more look now and then decide, he thought, and took the mirror out of his robe, but before he could brace himself to look at it, he felt one of the other dragons start to move toward him.
Green. Jae-ha. He wasn't jumping, just walking, but it was enough to make Shin-ah freeze and put the mirror away again.
He watched Jae-ha coming. When the green dragon was closer than all but a few trees, he finally looked back at Shin-ah. "Oh, there you are," he called, as though he hadn't known that all along and walked straight here. "Yona dear is getting worried, you know."
Shin-ah lowered his face. His shoulders drew in guiltily.
Jae-ha finally leaned against the nearest tree. "Any hard feelings about this morning?" he asked.
Shin-ah wasn't sure what he meant. Feelings hard like difficult, or hard like stone? Either one could mean a lot of different feelings. And who did he mean might be having them? If Jae-ha was having them himself, surely he would know and not be asking, but he was the one who'd had his mirror taken away. Shin-ah made a soft sound, but didn't risk an answer.
Jae-ha sighed. "I apologize for trying to trick you," he said.
Shin-ah shook his head, surprised. "No, that's… all right."
"Ah, good. May I have my mirror back, then?"
"Mmm…" Shin-ah wasn't ready to give it back, but he had no right to say 'let me keep it a little longer.' He was sure that he had to give it back now, but then he might never have another chance to see… He raised his hands, but instead of reaching into his robe, he just twisted his fingers together.
Jae-ha came closer and sat down. His face changed. His mouth spread into a frighteningly unhappy smile, and his brows lowered over narrowed eyes.
"Don't tell me you've lost it." He clearly shaped each word.
Shin-ah instantly shook his head.
Jae-ha relaxed again with a loud sigh. "That's good! If you had, I would have had to insist that you pay me back for it."
That was a new idea. Shin-ah was becoming familiar with the coins Yoon had occasionally given him when they came to a town. The little metal discs were no longer new and mysterious, but he was still enjoying the look and feel of them and hadn't yet moved on to the advanced technique of exchanging them for other things. Already he knew that this wasn't how it worked, that coins wouldn't make keeping Jae-ha's mirror all right, but he was curious. "How much?"
"Well, it was quite an adventure how that one came into my hands. You could never really replace something like that…"
Shin-ah felt a sinking of guilt in his chest.
"But for something that I could use? I'd say it would come to about…"
Jae-ha mentioned a number.
Shin-ah gasped and jumped with shock. Twenty pouches of coins like his still wouldn't be nearly enough. He snatched the mirror out of his robe and offered it.
"Thank you." Jae-ha held out his hand and let Shin-ah place the mirror gingerly onto his palm, then he tucked it away in his own robe along with all the other magical treasures and the uncountable knives, and still the cloth flowed so gracefully… Shin-ah never dared to look into Jae-ha's robe for fear that things just vanished inside of it.
"Shall we go back for lunch?"
Shin-ah nodded, and they walked back to rejoin the others.
The mirror was gone. It was a relief. He didn't have to feel guilty about keeping it anymore; Jae-ha's reactions had given him some shocks but now they were past and apparently no one was angry, and this way he didn't have to worry about losing the mirror or breaking it — after learning twice over that it was much more precious than he'd realized.
But in the end he'd only gotten the one brief glimpse under his mask, just one flash of the colors of light reflected from his own eyes. If he'd known that he had so little time, he would have tried harder to push through the shock of it. He would have kept trying until he could look at it steadily. Could he really have done that in the span of one morning? It just wasn't enough time.
And after this, he wouldn't dare ask to see the mirror again.
As Shin-ah lay that night with little Ao curled up sleeping against his chest and his blanket pulled up to cover his face, he tried to put mirrors out of his mind. Looking at himself in the water should really be enough, but he knew that if he tried it now, he would have to deal not only with the shock of seeing himself, but with the disappointment of looking at such a pale reflection after having seen that perfect image made of light.
He could make do, though, once he managed to forget about it. After all, for him to want something so fancy and beautiful seemed silly. Surely it wasn't important, not enough to bother the others with such trouble and expense. Maybe someday he would have that impossible number of coins — but then surely that much money would be better spent on a sword or something more useful. No, it wasn't for him to line his robe with treasures like Jae-ha did. Whatever Zeno said, Shin-ah wasn't anything like the green dragon, and he was sure he never would be.
He should just forget.
That was what he thought when he fell asleep.
But when the sun woke him and Jae-ha was gone as usual, he gave in to the temptation of looking toward the green dragon's presence, past trees and a bank of earth to where Jae-ha was sitting with his magical metal disc.
Well, where was the harm in looking? And if he volunteered to gather firewood and went searching in that direction…
Looking at the mirror every morning was no way to forget about it, but if Shin-ah tried to stop himself, it only made it worse, and for the first few days it seemed that surely looking from a distance or sneaking a glimpse through the trees wouldn't bother anyone but himself.
It seemed that way until night came as they were crossing a plain, and that morning Shin-ah woke feeling the dragon blood all clustered snugly together. He roused himself to look for Jae-ha, wondering why he wouldn't have gone off somewhere apart like he usually did — and there he was with his mirror, only a few feet away. With nothing else to go to the other side of, he'd just gone behind the tent. Shin-ah was so close that he could see the light bouncing off the white metal, with nothing in between to distract him except a layer of cloth. He sat up and stared.
As he rose, he felt Zeno's arm slide off of him, but it was Kija who stirred.
"Mmh, Shin-ah, is something wrong?"
Jae-ha was so close he could hear anything they said. Shin-ah put his palms out to urge silence and snatched his mask on. "It's okay," he whispered, then he slipped out of the tent.
Outside, the breeze was almost too soft to feel, but its sigh filled the morning quiet, and every other sound rang through it, full and clear like bells. Hak was on watch and gave an acknowledging glance. Shin-ah keenly felt himself being looked at and didn't like it, but there was nothing around but low green grass, empty dew-moist air, and the tents. Going to the other side of Yona and Yoon's tent would seem strange, and the other side of the big tent, Jae-ha was already there. He knew he couldn't go, shouldn't even get close — but if he got close, he would be mostly out of the way, and the temptation was too strong.
Shin-ah crept softly through the cool grass. Around one corner of the tent — now it was between him and Hak — and the next corner…
He quietly knelt down, just at the corner of the tent, and leaned around it.
There was Jae-ha, and there was the mirror. Shin-ah was seeing it at such a glancing angle that it was just a tiny sliver of color, but there it was, that magical light-painting of a view glancing off into the grass. If Shin-ah bent low, he could turn it into hills and sky — so far —
Then the mirror began to turn. The sliver of color widened; the view swung back over a blur of pale tent cloth and settled on Jae-ha's face — narrowed eyes, frowning mouth —
Shin-ah gasped and darted back, out of the mirror's sight.
With nothing else to do, he went back to the front of the tent and sat down by the flap. His back was to the mirror now, and he knew that he should keep it that way. He shouldn't look at it. The image of Jae-ha's frowning face was still sinking into his mind; the green dragon was losing patience, and why shouldn't he? This was just no good. It had to stop.
Hak was still there, and he caught Shin-ah's gaze with a tilt of his head. His eyebrows quirked, and he pointed toward the back of the tent in a way that seemed to ask 'should I go and hit him?'
Shin-ah shook his head, folded his arms on his knees and settled his face there. When little Ao slipped out under the tent cloth, he just let her climb on him, accepting the familiar comfort of tiny paws tugging their way around his clothes.
Jae-ha looked over his shoulder toward the corner of the tent, although he knew that Shin-ah was already out of sight. This is becoming annoying, he thought. There was no reason for him to get involved in this, or there shouldn't be, but…
To say 'just look in some water' — he knew better; nostalgia for his pirate days wasn't the only reason he owned a mirror.
To say 'buy your own' — none of them had that kind of money, and if they did, they would have more important things to spend it on.
To say 'just ask to borrow it' — that would be annoyingly sensible if it were anyone else, but Shin-ah wasn't likely to stop being Shin-ah anytime soon.
And to think of him having something of himself that was so mysteriously beautiful and that he couldn't see… 'Even a dragon's eye can't look at itself, can it? Not without help.' And Jae-ha had teased him with that help and was holding it over his head.
He gazed thoughtfully at the mirror in his hand.
Shin-ah maintained his resolve for days. When he woke in the mornings, he turned onto his stomach and stared into the ground until the others started moving and he could focus on helping take down the tents and pack. When they were back in forested country and Yoon sent him to gather firewood, he was careful where he looked.
As he was bringing the firewood back, Yona looked up when he got close enough to hear. She paused in taking down the tent and watched until he came out from the other side of the trees. "Oh, Shin-ah," she said. "Have you seen Jae-ha? He's usually back by now."
"Droopy Eyes is probably just having a bad hair day," Hak guessed.
So the others also knew where he went in the mornings. But Shin-ah had to shake his head; he hadn't seen him, had even been trying not to see him. It didn't feel like he was far away or like anything was wrong, but…
A slight twinge of anxiety was enough reason to look toward Jae-ha's presence. There he was, like any other morning, a little way off in the trees, and there, balanced again in the branches of a shrub, was his metal disc —
Or not quite a disc. The smooth, round lip Shin-ah remembered made half a circle, but then a ragged edge bit the other half nearly away, and the mirror sat there among the leaves like a little moon just over half full.
"Do you see something wrong?" Kija asked.
Shin-ah realized that his jaw had gone slack. "No. Ah — I'll go." He set off again into the trees.
No sneaking this time, although he was still nervous. He just walked straight to where Jae-ha was. Even when he should have been close enough to hear, Jae-ha didn't look up, just sat gazing at what was left of the mirror. Was it that he felt that bad about it?
He finally glanced over as Shin-ah came up and sat on his knees beside him.
"I'm sorry it broke," Shin-ah said, more softly than he meant to.
"Well, it has that much more of a story now." Jae-ha took it down out of the bush and tucked it away in his robe. His smile as he did so wasn't exactly happy; it wasn't angry or sad, either, just somehow soft — but then it turned brighter. "And since it's happened, may as well make the best of it."
He turned to look Shin-ah directly in the face. "Put out your hands and don't look."
Shin-ah was taken by surprise. This could be another trick, but even so he decided to go along. He reached out and turned his head away until he couldn't see.
He felt Jae-ha take his hands, turn them over and push them together until they formed one cup in the middle, then he heard a soft hiss of rubbing cloth. A moment of silence, a light brush of fingernails — and then something smooth dropped onto his palms.
Shin-ah didn't have to see it to know what it was. He hardly dared to turn around —
"You can look now," Jae-ha told him.
He looked, and there it was. A piece of the mirror, shaped like a tooth pointed from the round edge inward. The brown face was toward him, showing a little sliver of its curving line patterns, and the white side lay against his skin. Carefully he turned it over and looked down and there was the reflected light — a little pool of it, rough-edged, but enough. He saw the color-image of his own mouth wide with amazement.
"This is… I can… You're giving this to me?"
"If you're willing to call a broken piece of something a gift," Jae-ha said, with a smile and a shrug. "It's not as if I need three of them. When it goes dull, I'll show you how to polish it."
Shin-ah felt emotion swelling in his chest, demanding to be let out, but he barely remembered how to breathe. He remembered what people said at a time like this, and he carefully shaped his mouth around the words.
"Thank you." It came out sounding uneven and strange.
"You're welcome," Jae-ha replied smoothly. He rose and dusted himself off. "Shall we go back?"
As they walked back, he trailed a little behind, holding the mirror shard tight in his hand. Now he had all the time he needed. Now he could look, little by little. But how could he carry this new treasure? He didn't want it to get damaged, or for little Ao to play with it on her own and drop it… He had just decided to wrap it up in cloth and put it in the pouch with his coins when they came within hearing distance of camp.
"…And silver!" Yona was saying. "I haven't seen one like that since I lived in the castle. It's still shiny, so it can't have been here long."
"Amazing," Kija said. "Someone who could have something like this being here just before we were."
"Where did you say it was?" Hak asked.
"Right by a tent peg. It's lucky no one stepped on it last night; it's a little sharp."
Shin-ah had been too preoccupied to look until he heard their voices, but now he remembered Jae-ha saying 'it's not as if I need three.' Indeed his own piece of the mirror was much smaller than what was missing. The rest of it, a jagged crescent with one broken-off point, was resting in Yona's hand.
He drew in his breath.
Jae-ha turned to him, raised one finger to his lips.
As they came out from among the trees, Yona held up the fragment, and it flashed white and blue from the sky. "Look, I found a piece of a mirror!"
"You know anything about this, Droopy Eyes?" Hak questioned.
"If I had something as beautiful as that, do you think I'd just let it get broken?" Jae-ha answered, shrugging.
Hak returned a raised eyebrow and a lopsided smile — he knew. Whatever his clue had been, Yona and Kija seemed too distracted by the mirror to have noticed it. Yoon was too busy with breakfast to show any interest. But Zeno also wore a knowing smile.
No one told.
"Shin-ah!" Yona came over to him, and he braced himself for the question. He'd been asked not to tell, but lying to her —
She held the piece out to him. "I want you to have this."
He hadn't braced himself for that! Looking around for help, he saw Jae-ha smother a laugh. As good as he was at these games, Yona was a step ahead of even him.
"It's okay, really," she insisted, pressing the gift. "I'm used to not having one anymore, but I'd like to think of you having it. You don't have to show anyone else if you're not ready, but I want you to see how nice your face really is."
How could he argue with that? He waved his hands and shook his head, increasingly lost and desperate. The answering worry in her eyes only made it worse. He didn't know what to do; it was all going wrong —
"Shin-ah? Is something wrong?"
"No — I — it's not —"
"Come now, Yona dear." Jae-ha lay a hand on her shoulder. "Sometimes what a man wants most is for a lady to have something nice."
Shin-ah seized on it and nodded.
"Oh. Is that…? Are you sure?"
He nodded again, more slowly.
Yona's eyes wandered down to the shard in her hand. Looking at her reflection, she brushed her fingers over her hair, and somehow the gesture gave Shin-ah a mysterious feeling of warmth.
Jae-ha caught his eyes with a knowing smile.
Shin-ah wasn't ready to smile, but he did think that maybe…
That was why Jae-ha had just left the piece on the ground for Yona to find. That was why no one else told, without even needing a sign — they all knew. He didn't want her to give him anything; he just wanted her to have something nice.
Maybe, Shin-ah thought, he and Jae-ha were a little bit alike after all.
Reflected Light - END