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Black Tea is striking in every sense. It’s easy for Milk to recall the first time Black Tea entered the shop, guns strapped to her hips and skirts whispering against the floor. The ruffles and faint pink of her dress caught Milk’s attention, but it was Black Tea’s expression which truly enchanted her, as it was grim yet somehow serene in a way Milk had never seen before and doubts she ever will again. Her tawny eyes and the inky curls of her hair stuck in Milk’s mind like burs against silken fabric, but it has invariably been the ivory lines of her jaw and throat which possess Milk’s thoughts.

Black Tea’s not unlike the statues populating the local churches: frozen, beautiful yet untouchable, each inch of her form a manifestation of artistry. At times, Milk catches her eyes lingering where night-sky locks brush moon-bright skin or drifting over the construction of Black Tea’s bones beneath. Upon recognizing what she’s doing, Milk always forces herself to avert her gaze, something uncomfortable settling in her stomach which might be shame, perhaps, but otherwise, she feeds her curiosity—gluts it on the sight of Black Tea’s reserved beauty.

The resemblance doesn’t stop there: Like the sculptures, Black Tea is nothing if not untouchable. Souls and humans alike shy away from her, parting like the seas Canele speaks of. Black Tea’s unwavering determination inspires some to shy away, and her unwavering determination inspires others, and her unwavering state of mourning takes care of the rest. Her steady control that bleeds into everything she does: It’s visible in everything from curl of her slender fingers around the handle of a gun to the shuttering of her expressions. And yet, Black Tea may be the most emotive of the souls Milk has ever met.

“Severity should be restricted to missions,” Coffee often says when Milk is too icy to their clients, smiling gently, so it does not reach his eyes. He always softens his rebukes in this way, as if Milk is as delicate as a bloom, unable to face her own faults; it took her quite some time to realize it is an effort to protect his own sensibilities rather than hers.

After his reminders, Milk will do her best to smile at customers, and even on missions when Chocolate teases about her poor “bedside manner.”

Black Tea is another matter entirely. She is as immovable as the shrines carved into the stone walls of the temples, and just as lovely. Initially, Milk must admit she struggled to read Black Tea’s emotions. In fact, when Coffee once murmured about Black Tea’s expressionless nature, Milk couldn’t help but agree there’s no betrayal of her feelings at all, whether it in her or her eyes or her voice. Even in battle—even when wounded—Black Tea’s expression would not waver. At least, that’s what Milk thought before she trained her gaze.

When Chocolate first caught Milk’s eyes lingering on Black Tea it was after a battle. Black Tea’s pale chest was flushed and her cheeks shining with exertion, and Milk was helpless to the sight. Chocolate leaned close to her, whispering, “There is nothing more enchanting than a woman who keeps her distance, is there not?”

Milk was stricken by this and wondered if it was, in fact, true; she wouldn’t know herself.

“But,” Chocolate had continued, softer still, “it is so often an illusion, is it not? Both those which are close and those who are far—it’s rarely the truth of the matter. What do you think, love?”

Milk didn’t know what to think. But she did start looking, watching.

And Black Tea watches humans. Her burning, honeyed eyes linger on their prone forms, their too-bright eyes. Humans have open faces and open hearts, both endearing and horrifying, in so many ways. With time, Milk recognizes that mingling of affection and fear within Black Tea, in the tension which brews between her brows and around her jaw and the softening of it when any mortal turns bright eyes upon her, asking for something.

Battles are had. Milk falls to her knees by Chocolate’s side, letting sand and dirt grit against her skin, and begins to twine bandages around his wounded wrist or leg or chest. And Black Tea is there. Her skirts will flutter and whisper around them, blocking Milk from the sight of the enemy, and Black Tea will take any hits meant for her without hesitation. Milk’s hands will tremble, and her chest tightens, years of training—of growing to know blood, breaks, and death the way one might know a lover—fading in the of an hasn’t felt since she first faced battle. It is not merely the presence of a gorgeous woman that distracts her, it is that Black Tea is so willing to sacrifice herself for another.

“I do hope you realize she has never taken a hit for me,” Chocolate whispers when the battle is done and he’s free to tuck himself close to Milk’s side. He’s already completed his “near-death" ritual: pressing his hands to Coffee’s cheeks and stealing hidden kisses, eyes shining and crinkling with so much delight.

“For Coffee,” Milk objects.

“For no man.”

“For women, then,” Milk persists.

Chocolate’s laugh is like sparks from a flame, warm but a threat without intending to be. “Oh, lovely girl, for no one but you.”

With time, Milk comes to realize it’s the truth. Black Tea suffers hits for her where she will no one else and she steps up to defend Milk when she must dart into the battle and give one of their fellows a healing elixir. She does not check on anyone else.

“Milk,” Black Tea murmurs, standing close enough that Milk is hyperaware of it. It’s after one of their battles, and they’ve returned to the shop, the whole lot of them wavering in the back. They’re all sore, some bloody, and more exhausted than anything. Despite this, the others make themselves scarce with surprising speed.

“Yes?” Milk glances her over, taking note of the loosening bandage at Black Tea’s wrist. “Oh, allow me,” she murmurs, stepping closer and taking Black Tea’s hand in her own.

Black Tea possesses slender, pallid hands which are coarse from wielding weapons so regularly. The skin is visibly rougher on her trigger finger, and the sight inexplicably fills Milk’s chest with warmth. Black Tea allows Milk to move her as she pleases; even after so many months of seeing Black Tea breathe and bleed like any other being, Milk is stirred to realize she’s no less pliable than any other soul. She would be less shaken if one of those statues in the city stepped down from its stand.

Black Tea watches Milk’s hands flutter over the bandage, tightening it with gentleness and tying it off with so much more care than a messy battlefield allowed.

“Thank you,” Black Tea intones quietly. There’s sentiment there, churning beneath the surface.

“Is that all?” Milk asks, pulling away.

Black Tea captures one of her hands, her fingers curling under Milk’s own. “Allow me this,” she murmurs, and there it is, an urgent and compelling rush of emotion lacing her voice.

When their eyes meet, Milk’s breath catches. So warm, burning, intent. Black Tea dips into a bow and raises Milk’s hand higher. Milk’s skin tingles where they touch and her heart races, chest tightening.

“May I?” Black Tea asks, so quiet Milk isn’t sure she’s spoken at all.

She still nods, frantic and jerky.

A kiss is pressed to her knuckles. It lingers and lingers the same way Milk’s eyes linger on Black Tea’s own hands. It takes Milk a moment to realize the heated, faint feeling in her head is a blush.

When Black Tea finally draws away, Milk feels as if she’s lost time. Their eyes meet, unflinching. Black Tea allows the slightest hint of a smile to curve her lips and she traces her thumb over Milk’s knuckles. Milk is feeling a little faint.

Black Tea is not a woman void of affection or warmth, but rather one so full of it that she must shield herself, in a sense. She may appear statuesque, but beneath that, she is like a flame, one which must be fed and treated with care. She is touchable, and as if to prove it Milk slips closer, entering Black Tea’s space until their skirts mingle—until their breaths mingle.

The marble lines of Black Tea’s face soften into something new and beautiful, like a sunrise. “It is not unwanted, then?”

“Not unwanted—not in the least,” Milk says with a serenity more befitting Black Tea’s illusion.

Humming, Black Tea guide’s Milk’s hand to her shoulder and Milk eagerly allows the other to settle on Black Tea’s forearm. Black Tea’s hand catches her beneath the elbow in return. Tawny eyes meet Milk’s own, soft with feeling. A hand eases to the small of Milk’s back, light yet heavy in a way that Milk can’t put into words. It grounds her, reminding this is not the dream it feels like.

“I thought you were looking,” Black Tea confesses, quick like she’s embarrassed but it needs to be said. “But then I thought I was deluding myself.”

For the first time in an extremely long time, Milk finds herself smiling until her cheeks hurt. “I was. I couldn’t help myself.”

Black Tea’s laugh is breathless and her eyes crinkle. “I know the feeling.”

Just as before, Milk can’t help herself and tugs Black Tea close, so she can hold her properly—can feel the warmth of her, the fire.