He doesn't know what to do.
No, that's not quite right. He does know what to do, or at least he knows what he wants to do. But as fate would have it, Shin-ah is woefully unsure if what he wants is truly the right thing, the moral thing. If he's learned anything over the course of his life, and the last few weeks in particular, it is that he has terrible judgment. Perhaps his judgment is not as bad as Yona's, but it's terrible nonetheless. He feels guilty even thinking such a negative thought about his kind leader, but her actions defy any other explanation.
For the millionth time today, Shin-ah wonders why else she could have done what she did back in that village. Why, when he had been about to consume those good-for-nothing bandits, had she bothered to put herself in harm's way? Even if those men were not worth the consequences to kill—which they weren't, he reminds himself—the princess had been willing to absorb his power in their place. She had been willing to take on his burden herself, regardless of the danger.
No matter how much he thinks back on her explanation, and tries to understand, he still can't comprehend it. Perhaps it's because he's too daft to see it, having lived most of his life in isolation, but he can't imagine that most people are like this. He has never met anyone so willing to put her own wellbeing above someone else's, especially when that someone else is a hostile stranger.
But then again, isn't that what he had been at one time? A stranger who had put his own sword to Yona's throat, who had commanded her to leave his cave even when she tried to reach out to him.
He still cringes when he thinks about the day they first met, but as far as he can tell the red-haired girl harbors no ill will towards him. If he had been in her place…he never would have trusted himself. He would always be wary of someone who once held a blade to him, no matter how gentle and compassionate he or she became after. The young woman's complete lack of apprehension astounds him. Is her bond with the dragons so strong that she will even disregard the concept of safety, so long as she remains with all of them? He supposes he can understand to an extent, but even so it seems a foolish sentiment to have.
Only a fool would be able to tolerate a monster like him, and after what happened…after the way he shoved her aside when she tried to stop him from killing that bandit, he hates himself even more. Regardless of her assurances, heedless of her declaration of loyalty, and ignoring the way she had clutched his paralyzed hand in hers, Shin-ah still wrestles with the entrenched belief that he should not be around her. She shouldn't want him around her, and neither should the others. If Yun and Hak could voice their thoughts, he is certain that they would say the same. Then again, they had not seen what Yona had, so maybe they wouldn't.
That doesn't matter, he tells himself. Their opinions, the opinions of strangers, don't matter. What's more than that is how he knows the other three dragons still want him around, but he can't bring himself to fully accept their positions as brethren. As close as they are to him, he still hesitates around them. He can feel their heartbeats, yet he finds himself actively trying to get away from them. He doesn't hate them—any of them—but he's wary of getting too close.
The only one whose presence he doesn't find uncomfortable, who he wants to be around above everyone else…is Yona.
But he can't; he shouldn't. If he does, she will surely pay a hefty price for it. She had come unsettlingly close last time, and the last thing he wants is to hurt her any more than he already has.
He wonders, though, if he's done so without realizing it. By coming with her on this journey, has he unknowingly doomed her to a lifetime of pain? If he stays with her and she gets hurt—whether by him or because of his emotional detachment—will it be any better than if he suddenly decides to leave? Surely the latter would tear her apart as well, perhaps even more than his power would.
Yes, it seems that his decision to come with her has unintended consequences as well; no matter what he does now he cannot avoid hurting the princess. It's a cruel irony, but he would be okay with living in misery and fear if it meant no one else would do so because of him. He's done it before, and he knows he can do it again.
As it is, though, that isn't possible—and once again Shin-ah finds his stomach twisting in anguish.
He can hear the princess calling for him, but he can't find her.
And, to his grave unease, he can't find himself either.
He is standing in a forest; that much he knows, and idly he recognizes it as the place that they are currently camping. He has a good eye for details like these, like the pattern of bark on a tree's trunk or the varieties of plants around him. That's to be expected, as his eyes can see anything in the world.
But to his increasing horror, they still can't see her.
"Yona?" he calls, lapsing back to his informal use of her name. He still can't quite kick the habit, having never known her as a princess, but maybe she would answer if he did. "Yona-hime?"
The echo of her voice carries over great distances, and without much thought he decides to follow the noise. He doesn't care where it leads him, so long as…
…So long as it takes him back to her.
He takes a step forward, then another, feeling his way through the darkness that does nothing to stop his keen senses.
To his shock, however, Yona's voice is lower this time, almost as though she has moved farther away.
But that can't be possible. Where is she? He's sure that her voice had been coming from this direction…
Then, out of nowhere, the world is turned on its head, and all of a sudden the princess's panicked cry issues from behind him.
Terror stiffens his bones, and his muscles go slack at the fear present in her voice. Has something happened to her? How? She had been fine a moment ago! What could have…?
"Shin-ah! Help me!"
"Yona," he whispers into the darkness, trying not to let the panic seize him. It's already flowing up to his shoulders, dragging him down like the dark waters of a bottomless river. "Where are you?"
She never answers him, and as the seconds—minutes—years—pass by, Shin-ah becomes increasingly agitated. Unable to even use his powers properly, he lapses into a dizzying stupor. He stumbles around, desperate to find the red-haired girl but growing more hopeless with each silent moment that passes. He'll never find her at this rate; she will be lost to him forever, and if he can't find her eventually he will have failed.
She trusted him to help her, to save her, and he can't even do that. What kind of dragon is he? What kind of friend…? Or, maybe, he could have been more than that, but now he will never know…
He scratches behind Ao's ear playfully, earning a delighted squeak from the tiny creature. She scampers up his arm, taking her usual place on his shoulder as someone else comes into the abandoned clearing.
Shin-ah sighs internally. He had come here to be alone with his thoughts, and he earnestly believes he needs it after his dream—nightmare—last night. Needless to say, he had woken up drenched in sweat, but had mercifully not awakened the others. Getting back to sleep had proven to be quite a chore, however, and now he's paying for his lack of rest with severe fatigue.
Hence the alone time.
He doesn't bother to turn around and face the newcomer, but he tenses up when she sits down beside him, the brief flash of red hair enough to warrant his senses going into overdrive.
Contrary to what he expects from the lively girl, Yona stays uncharacteristically silent, and makes no move to initiate a conversation. He's tempted to get up and walk away, but he's also afraid that doing so will upset her, and that's the last thing he wants to do.
So he says nothing, and waits patiently for her to talk. Finally, the silence seems to become too much for her to bear.
"Hak is being a jerk again," she says gruffly.
Shin-ah is loathe to say anything that would offend her, but he can't help but be confused by her complaint; he had thought that the Thunder Beast being rude is a normal occurrence, but apparently he had crossed the line this time. He can't say that he's surprised, but if it's getting to Yona it must be something uncalled for.
Either way, he decides to stay silent, but still nods in acknowledgment.
Yona cranes her head to look at him, and the sudden gentleness of her tone catches him off guard.
"Just promise me…" she starts, "if Hak says anything to you, ignore him, all right? He's in a bad mood."
He nods stiffly at her, and without warning Yona beams up at him. He tries not to let it show on his face, but his face warms at the sight, and along with it his heart skips a beat.
How can she look so happy, when she should be miserable? Why is she even bothering to look after someone like me…? He concludes that this must be part of her charm as well, the ability to feign perfect happiness even when she is crumbling inside. Is it all for the sake of the people around her, so that he and the other dragons won't worry about her?
And Yun and Hak, too, he reminds himself.
It may be selfish, but Shin-ah can't help but to feel lucky that this category includes him; the fact that she is smiling for his sake, while he can't even muster a tiny grin for her, makes him so relieved that it hurts.
And that's when he makes his decision.
He gets up in the middle of the night, having not slept one second since the others lied down beside him. He had feigned sleep as best he could, and waited until the snores and mutters of everyone else—particularly Kija—had died down to a predictable rhythm.
The only one who notices his silent departure from the campsite is Ao, who climbs confusedly up his pant leg when she is jostled from her slumber. A single finger placed over his lips causes the squirrel to stare blankly at him, but to his relief she doesn't utter a sound and merely takes her usual place on his shoulder.
And with that, Shin-ah makes off into the trees—but he doesn't get very far before he hesitates. Though he has nothing slung over his shoulder, nothing dangling from his hip besides his sword, he still feels as though there is something he's forgotten—something he's missing.
He comes to a stop in the clearing from earlier, his legs suddenly draining of energy as he loses himself to the empty sensation in his chest. This place is eerily similar to the one from his dream, and with a start he realizes that this is because it is; he must have passed by it earlier, and for some reason the image had gotten stuck in his head.
Shin-ah clenches his fist, his hands shaking as he struggles to get a grip on himself.
Why is he feeling this way? He had never had a problem leaving things behind before; he had been expected to leave certain things in the past for the sake of moving forward, none the least of which is his own childhood. He can hardly remember a lot of it, and he is prone to believing that this is mostly a good thing.
But still…he wishes that there were certain things he could remember, like the way his old home (shack) looked or the finer details of the face of the man who raised him. By abandoning those traumatic memories—some of which were less so than the others—has he somehow lost something vital to himself?
If he ends up leaving here tonight, will he eventually regret it as well? Will he—and the mere thought is enough to give him pause—find one day that he can no longer remember Yona's face?
He can't stomach such an outcome. He doesn't want to think about it, to acknowledge the fact that the new most important person in his life has the potential to become yet another stranger. He doesn't want to believe that she will disappear from his thoughts, either in face or in name. The notion alone scares him. Shin-ah can't abandon someone he's duty-bound to save, nor can he abandon someone that he feels this way toward.
But how do I feel? I know that I want to protect her, but I always assumed that was the dragon's blood influencing my actions. I know that she saved me by taking me out of that cave, and I owe her everything for that. She even gave me a name. But that can't be it. Even now, when I truly believe that leaving will protect her, I can't do it. I can't make myself walk away, and I don't want to forget about her and the other dragons. I don't even want to forget about Hak or Yun. I don't want to.
I don't want to.
He's at a loss, and the conflicting halves of himself aren't helping to alleviate his stress. One part of him says to keep moving forward, while the other is browbeating his unsure side to turn around and head back to camp before someone notices his absence.
Maybe…he should take some more time to think about it. It's not as though this is an easy decision, anyway. He can't afford to make any hasty decisions, not with Yona and the others' lives at risk.
He hears her voice from a distance, and though he logically knows this has nothing to do with his dream, Shin-ah still freezes in abject terror when he hears the princess's worried tone. He flashes back to that unconscious memory, and has to bite his tongue to avoid calling her name in return—out of panic, mostly.
He doesn't want her to find him like this, trying to find an easy way out of this situation; it would be too shameful.
So it baffles him when, despite all logic, he finds that he is incapable of moving.
"Shin-ah! Where are you?" the young woman calls out in a low whisper; a few twigs break beneath her footsteps, a testament to her increasing level of concern. She's being careless, he realizes, not paying attention to where she's going in her haste to find him. If she doesn't turn back now, the princess will end up getting herself lost or hurt because of him.
In moments like these, Shin-ah curses his inability to refuse her.
When she calls his name the next time, he responds with a tentative, "Yona."
"Shin-ah?" she gasps, her footsteps suddenly halting. Apparently she questions her own ears, because she then asks, "Is that you? Where are you? It's pitch black in here…"
That's exactly why you should have stayed back at camp. He wants to tell her so out loud, but wisely holds his tongue. No doubt she would reproach him for acting as though she shouldn't worry herself over him.
Yona does her best to follow his voice, and several times Shin-ah wants to simply go and find her himself; Yun will kill him if he sees that the princess scarred up her legs on his account. But something still holds him back from approaching her. He doesn't know why, but he's afraid that if...
He sees her stumble before she yells, and without thinking he sprints towards her voice. She's only a few feet away, but to him it feels like a lifetime as he lurches towards the falling girl. Right before she hits the ground, he's beneath her, his right arm placed on her upper back while the other hovers awkwardly in the air above.
They both stay still for a few seconds, but he can hear her heavy breathing as she attempts to digest what's just happened. He can't blame her, really; if he couldn't see anything properly he'd be wary too.
"Are you…all right?" he finally says, his voice monotone and soft as always.
Even in this darkness he can see her beam up at him, a flustered expression on her face as she attempts to right herself. "I'm fine," she reassures him. "Thanks for catching me, Shin-ah. I wish I could return the favor."
"What do you mean?"
"Well—I don't mean literally," she corrects herself, stuttering over her words in a way most unfitting for someone who's supposed to be royalty. Then again, she has never acted as such in front of him, so he assumes that he has nothing to compare it to. "I just mean that I wish I could have helped you, too."
"…Help…me? Why would you need to do that? I'm the one that's supposed to be protecting you…" And there—he's said too much. He can already tell by the way she looks: her face twists in discomfort, and if his eyes are not deceiving him (which they never are) she also appears affronted by his claim.
"Haven't I already made it clear that's not how it works?" she snaps in frustration. Not two seconds later, her expression relaxes, and she takes a deep breath. "I'm sorry. It's just…I was afraid that you might try something like this. Running away, I mean. Not that I blame you, but…"
She trails off, and it's probably for the better since he's all but dumbfounded by her statement as it is. It's often the unfortunate case that he has a hard time understanding other peoples' words, and she is no exception. "Why?"
"Well…do you remember what I told you before? About ignoring Hak?"
"This is why! He said something to you, didn't he? That rude jerk—I should knock some sense into him! He has to know how sensitive you are…"
Sensitive? "The Thunder Beast hasn't said anything to me. I have no complaint."
A pair of doe eyes stares blankly at him, filled first with confusion and then a hint of denial. "But—what? Then…why are you leaving? I thought for sure that it would be because Hak insulted you."
He thinks on her words for a moment before deciding to ask the burning question on his mind. "What did he say to you?"
"Do you not remember?"
A scarlet blush, one so intense that it's plain even in the dark, paints her features. Shin-ah offhandedly thinks that it reminds him of the flying squirrel on his shoulder—cute, innocent, but also hiding something. He would have allowed himself a moment of victory if it weren't for the fact that her guilt is painfully obvious; a man ten times more socially inept than him could have picked up on it. "I…um…"
It's obvious she doesn't want to tell him, but he refuses to let the matter go so easily—and she knows it. "He…he told me that he doesn't think you're safe. He tried to convince me to stay away from you—that you're dangerous. Ever since what happened in that village…"
"…You told him."
It isn't a question, and the fact that she doesn't deny it proves his assumption.
"I didn't think he would blow it out of proportion!" she says. "He knew that you were paralyzed, obviously, and he started pressing me for answers as to what you did to those bandits. I told him that you stopped, that I was able to call you back before it was too late, but he nearly blew up anyway. All this time he's been nagging me about it, and the last straw was a few days ago."
Shin-ah could have guessed most of this based purely on principle. The first priority in the Thunder Beast's life has been and always will be Yona, and in a strange way he would have respected the man less were he completely okay with what he had almost done to her.
"In that case…" he says softly, "you should allow me to leave."
Without waiting for a response, he turns and walks away.
But before he makes it three steps, a small hand closes around his arm, and with strength he had not suspected she possessed the young woman spins him back around to face her.
A mask of rage stares up at him, leaving him breathless for a few seconds while he processes her sudden shift in mood. It's his fault; it has to be. But what had he said that was so awful? All he's done is think about her safety. Why…?
"What are you doing?" he asks, and her eyes twitch as his breath ghosts across her face.
He notices when her bout of anger starts to dissipate, as the lines in her face soften and return to their melancholy look from before. Is she no longer angry with him? Is she hiding her emotions again?
He wants to know. More than anything, he wants to know what she's thinking.
Shin-ah holds his tongue as her grip on his wrist weakens, but she still clings to the fabric of his shirt, biting her tongue as she resorts to avoiding eye contact entirely. It's not as though it really makes a difference to her, since he's still wearing the mask, but he notices it all the same. He likes the fact that she tries to look at him even while respecting his boundaries; it makes him feel as though he is truly connecting with her. He doesn't like it when she looks away, especially since he knows it means there is something wrong.
Then, he goes stock-still when her other hand reaches up to his face, and her fingertips slide across his cheek like before. He doesn't pull away, is too distracted to pull away, but he seems to come back to his senses when one of her nails reaches beneath the edge of the mask.
His hand—the one she isn't holding on to—reaches up to stop her, wraps around her searching wrist, and holds her there. They stand like that for a few tense seconds, each holding the other's hand, faces close enough to almost touch but with pairs of eyes that don't meet.
It is, in one way or the other, the oddest situation he has found himself in. In another way, it is also the closest he has ever been to Yona, and he wonders if she realizes this as well. It's different than it had been back in that village, because now they are face-to-face, communicating without words and even without eye contact—at least on her part.
It's strange, but without hesitation Shin-ah knows that he would never trade this moment for the world.
"Shin-ah…" Yona whispers. "Let me take it off. Please. I want to see you…" Her hand strains against his grip, and he's incapable of stopping her when his hand feels like lead.
So she does, and he unconsciously shivers when he feels the cool air hit his face. His eyes snap closed of their own accord, still afraid to look at her after what he'd done, but she doesn't chastise him for it.
She doesn't say anything.
Instead he hears her take a deep breath, feels her hand tighten on his shirt as her other applies more pressure to his face, and he nearly has a panic attack when he feels warm air glide across his lips. But he doesn't stop her, he's too nervous to speak, and so he merely burns when she covers his mouth with hers.
Yona is warm; he had already known that, but it's much, much different when he is this close to her. He feels heat bloom in his cheeks, spreading across his face and body, and he resists the urge to open his eyes and see what she looks like as well. If she is burning as much as he is…
She is also soft, as well, touching him with only gentle hands and lips, and her kiss feels more like a caress than a way to claim him, as it had seemed to so many people he'd observed in villages. There is nothing ulterior about this, at least not to him. To her, it's clear that this is a way of showing affection.
And Shin-ah is past the point of wanting to refuse it.
He hardly notices when he is no longer standing, but is now kneeling on the ground with Yona still clinging to him. There is heat all around him, and his heart flutters when the young woman separates her face from his.
Before he can stop himself, his eyes open—and before he can tell himself to close them, he is already a goner. Once he sees her, red-cheeked and beaming at him as though he is the sun, Shin-ah is all but incapable of averting his gaze—no matter how dangerous he knows it is. Against his better judgment, he sees everything. Every little detail about her, from her fiery red hair to the endearing gleam in her large eyes, is eagerly absorbed by his gaze. Even in the dark, nothing escapes his attention, and he can only imagine how breathtaking she would be in full daylight. He doesn't have to imagine it, but it's been a fair while since he's seen her like this; he's kept himself starved of her image purposely to avoid any chance of harming her, and if he weren't so caught up in the moment he is certain that he would have looked away as soon as their eyes met.
As it turns out, he can't go through with it.
"Shin-ah," she says, cocking her head to the side. She takes his hand in hers, holding it between her two palms and rubbing it soothingly to assuage his stress. His mask and fur piece lie in her lap, taken away without his attention, but she isn't afraid. In fact, she looks happier than he's seen her in days—truly happy, without the fake smile that she's become used to wearing in front of him.
"Yes?" he says quietly.
At the sound of his voice, her smile grows impossibly wider. "Stay."
With that single word, Yona effectively destroys any possibility of him ever leaving. There is nothing he can do or say to dispute her, nothing he can think of that would allow him to be satisfied with disobeying her command.
And, strangely enough, he is okay with it. It's bizarre, but all of a sudden, Shin-ah doesn't feel like he is a stranger anymore, not when the distance between the two of them has been so thoroughly shattered. Perhaps, when more time passes, he will start to feel the same way about the others—and, more importantly, about himself.
The least he can do is try.
"Thank you, Yona," he says, glancing down at his lap. "I'm sorry for causing you so much trouble—you must think I'm strange for acting like this."
She reaches out, tucks a strand of light hair behind his ear, and he flushes once more.
"Don't be silly," she laughs. "You're an important, irreplaceable person to me, Shin-ah. Of course I would want to help you."
"Then…you don't think it's strange for me to be feeling this way?"
The smile she sends his way has his heart constricting in his chest, but it will be a long while before he comes to understand exactly what the feeling is called.
"There's nothing strange about it."
And this time, he believes her.