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A Bird Without Feathers

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The gardens are silent when Sanghyuk arrives, the branches of the nearby trees swaying gently under the autumn breeze, the sun too bright and high in the sky for the nobility that would usually be strolling these paths to submit themselves to the outdoors.

After a busy first few days reaching out to other performers and gaining their trust, trying to make themselves known, they’ve been more or less free to roam the streets of the capital. They may not be an actual troupe, but their ability with the swords—born out of need and honed for deception—is more than enough to make them pass for a really good one. It had been quite easy, not surprisingly considering how much the fine arts are appreciated in the city; as long as one has something to contribute to the beauty of the world, they will always have a place at the artists’ quarter, a roof over their head and food on their table.

Their rooms are probably empty now; Nara and Sunwoo are fighting, which means no one will be in the training room either, so Sanghyuk takes the chance to go out on his own, knowing he won’t be missed.

He has heard the rumours and the stories, has even seen him from afar once before, in passing—the Queen’s Songbird, her favourite pet with the most beautiful voice, that sings only for her. Or at least that’s what the people say. Sanghyuk always thought that he would be able to recognise him anywhere and under any guise, has been able to before, but the truth is that when he managed to get a glimpse of the Songbird’s face—which was no small feat considering all the Queen’s guards surrounding him—Sanghyuk couldn’t be sure. Still, he has found himself in the gardens, eyes searching.

“Are you here to mock me?” A voice comes from a branch directly over his head, and Sanghyuk steps back to stare at the man as he makes his descent from the fig tree.

His hair is a really light shade of blond, swept up, shorter than he remembers seeing it and shaved on the sides. His eyelids and cheeks are adorned with makeup, and his brows are light too, covered in fine golden dust. Even his eyes look lighter somehow. He looks pale, at least what little of his skin can be seen; he is only wearing a pair of thin white trousers, but most of his body is covered in enough jewellery to pay for a small kingdom. “Because you can fuck right off, I know I fucked up.”

He looks almost unrecognisable, but it is him under all that gold. It really is Jaehwan.

“What—” Sanghyuk tries to step closer, one of his hands rising towards him on its own, but Jaehwan steps back.

“Don’t,” Jaehwan waves his arms, half-heartedly points to the bracelets around his wrists and ankles, the choker around his neck, “they’re not only for decoration, and it’s not pleasant.”

“You got caught then,” Jaehwan just stares at him and jingles some of the jewellery in answer. Obviously. Sanghyuk thought—he didn’t really have an inkling of what Jaehwan could be doing here, but this makes things clear: he’s being punished. “I can’t say I’m too sorry for you, since you did run off with all I had the last time we saw each other.”

“Yeah well, don’t take it personally, I do that to a lot of people,” Jaehwan’s mouth curls into a half smile then and his tone is playful when he adds, “and your growth spurt hadn’t worked its magic on you yet, sadly. I can’t say I would do the same again.”

Sanghyuk knows him too well, can recognise the fake lightness in his voice that he uses to hide as easy as if it was a mask covering his face, and he’s suddenly angry. “Maybe I’ll stay around and see how you get out of this one,” he snaps.

“I could make you king,” Jaehwan is trying hard to control himself but he can hear the hint of desperation in his voice, “if you help me.”

Help. Sanghyuk couldn’t know before, wasn’t even sure it was Jaehwan, but as soon as he started suspecting and paying attention to hearsay, the thought that he might not have been here voluntarily had been on his mind. Jaehwan can’t be tethered, he knows that too well.

“I couldn’t accept that offer; my debt to you would be impossible to repay,” he whispers, and part of him starts to wonder what he is doing here, why did he come, what does it matter if Jaehwan is here by his own will or against it. He should just go, go back to the others and to his life. Leave and pretend he hasn’t seen Jaehwan.

“I can think of a few ways in which you could repay me…”

It’s still that voice and Sanghyuk gives up, is about to walk away from him and leave the gardens when he feels something sharp taking hold of his right wrist. He hasn’t noticed before, but Jaehwan’s nails are long, painted black and filed sharp. The unexpected stab of pain distracts him for a second and he stares at the pale hand, thinking about talons.

“Sanghyuk,” Jaehwan whispers, his mask slipping, “I can’t sing.”

And that must be it. The reason he’s the Queen’s pet, the reason he hasn’t run off yet. The reason he has stayed so long in one place.

Sanghyuk remembers the first time he heard Jaehwan sing, the feeling of something else—something more—hiding along the edges of his voice, like tendrils pulling at something inside of him; he remembers the first time he saw Jaehwan use his voice to alter reality, all the times he saw him use it to make things appear where there was nothing, to stop people from going after him, after them; he remembers falling asleep, spent, with Jaehwan half draped around and over him, softly singing one of his lullabies, his voice raw and without illusion. He can see the pain in Jaehwan’s face now, probably as much of having to admit his weakness as from whatever his restraints are doing to him for touching Sanghyuk, for not letting go, and he releases himself from Jaehwan’s hold. He doesn’t want to leave anymore.

“I’ll go to you at night.”

*

“You look bored,” Sanghyuk says, suddenly standing next to the divan Jaehwan is laying on. He’s not exactly lying, but it’s not only that, Jaehwan looks… unearthly, strangely ethereal. He reminds him of a caged bird, beautiful and delicate, but ultimately trapped and unable to fly; a bird without feathers, wings desperately flapping against his cage, nowhere to go even without it being there to stop him. It’s unsettling to see Jaehwan like this, so thin and pail and frail, even though Sanghyuk knows he’s not, and he wonders what happens when Jaehwan is alone, with no one there to pretend for. He is starting to get the irrational fear that Jaehwan is just going to die before his own eyes, probably of boredom.

“Stop. Doing. That.” Jaehwan emphasises each word by throwing him a different fruit from the small table next to him. Sanghyuk catches a plum, bites into it once. And don’t show off if you’re not taking me with you, I’m the one who showed you the passages!” He points to the wall accusingly.

Sanghyuk was surprised at first to know just how far Jaehwan’s apparent freedom goes, especially after seeing him on the streets surrounded by the Queen’s guard. He is free to come and go as he pleases, which in theory means that he could have run away a long time ago. The bracelets around his wrists and ankles are more of an annoyance than anything else, burning his skin if he dares to touch someone or is touched; a way for the Queen to keep an eye on her property. The pain is real, but they’re magic burns and don’t scar, fade away in only a few days. As long as he has the thin choker that is usually concealed under bigger neck pieces, though, he will not be able to sing. He has been tempted to run, almost tried to at one point; in his first months at court he struck up a friendship with some of the Queen’s attendants, learned about the passages behind the walls that they use to go from room to room unseen, learned about those that could take him out of the castle and almost anywhere. He has gone as far as leaving the city altogether, just that once, only to turn back and walk into his rooms again. To almost everyone else, Jaehwan being covered in such priceless pieces and allowed to walk freely shows how loyal he is to the Queen, how dear and valuable he is to her, but for Jaehwan and the Queen and the few who know, it’s only a symbol of his defeat, a way for the Queen to mock him for trying to trick and rob her, to show him that he could walk away and have that which he came into the city to steal once upon a time and so much more and she wouldn’t even care, but he would have to pay the price for the rest of his life.

“What took you so long? I’ve been waiting for you!”

“Yes, and I’ve been doing nothing but lounging around all day. And you had Haesoo show me the passages.” Jaehwan ignores him.

Sanghyuk understands how he is feeling, he really does, but that doesn’t stop him from throwing the half eaten plum back at him.

“I finally get you alone in my rooms and that’s what you decide to do,” Jaehwan says indignantly.

“You can drop the act, I’ve found out something.”

That gets Jaehwan’s attention and he stops, suddenly keeping very still. He’s been getting increasingly jittery around Sanghyuk, the need to touch him itching in his palms, but he did that once before on the gardens and the burns on his skin are still fading. Only the memory of the pain keeps him from reaching out. This wasn’t a problem before, but with Sanghyuk here it’s different; he’s too used to the occasional touch between them, before, and the lack of that casual intimacy is getting on is nerves. He knows that he’s an asshole and that what he did was wrong, but he also knows that he always had the intention of going back. Before this happened.

“There’s going to be a reception soon, a few delegates from a neighbouring country,” Jaehwan’s eyes are full of hope at his next words. “It looks like something important,” and he doesn’t say more but they’re both thinking the same, that it may be important enough for the Queen to want to show off her famous Songbird.

Jaehwan plops down on his bed and beckons him closer. “Tell me everything.”

Sanghyuk steps towards the bed, picks the bowl of fruits from the table on his way and sits on the floor in front of Jaehwan. This feels familiar, and for a moment it’s easy to pretend that nothing is wrong and they are just preparing for one of their jobs, going over the plan together one last time before joining the others.

“There’s six of us,” Sanghyuk begins, “including me and the old man.”

Both of them have worked for him before, sometimes together; old man Kim is the one you go to—or that will go to you, if he thinks you’re deserving—for longer jobs like this one, with a group of people you may or may not know but who are very good at what they do, whatever that is. No once calls him by his name because no one likes him, but he always pays well.

“Nara is the lead,” Jaehwan nods. That makes sense because Nara is the best, but also because she is the one who introduced them to the old man so many years ago, “Sooha is here too, if you can believe that,” Sanghyuk pauses, “and Sunwoo.”

“Now I’m glad I don’t have to see them,” Jaehwan grumbles. They’ve never really liked each other much, had to pretend to get along almost since the moment they met; Jaehwan says that the reason is because Sunwoo is too sloppy and impatient, never listens to anyone, isn’t careful enough and gets himself and others in danger unnecessarily, and he can’t stand him. Sanghyuk agrees, sometimes, but deep down he thinks that they clash because they’re too similar. Also, he knows that the real reason is probably that Jaehwan hasn’t forgiven Sunwoo for that time he accidentally got his nose broken, maybe never will. “Who else?”

“Eunho. He’s… I don’t know, it’s hard to tell. Neither of us know him from before but, apparently, he has someone on the inside who can help us get out of there after the reception. The old man sent Sooha to recruit him and he seems to like him, though.”

“He likes everyone.”

“Except Sunwoo,” Sanghyuk points out.

“You’re right, I knew there was a reason I like him. Anyway, I know Eunho,” Sanghyuk looks at him, a silent question on his face, “I’m not his contact, but I may or may not know who is.”

Sanghyuk looks slightly alarmed for a brief moment.

“Don’t worry, you’re safe,” Jaehwan winks, and Sanghyuk throws a plum at him.

*

Jaehwan’s hair is soft to the touch, dark, and long enough that the ends are starting to curl. Sanghyuk runs his fingers through it, playing with a stray lock. He runs his nails through the back of his head, making Jaehwan’s mouth curl into a pleased smile. They’re both tired and maybe a bit drunk, their lips bruised and limbs loose and heavy, Jaehwan sprawled half on top of him. I could stay like this forever, Sanghyuk thinks.

Sanghyuk feels Jaehwan move his leg up between his, feels him shift to press it against him; feels him mouthing at his neck, his breathy laugh against his skin when he scratches again, more intently; the sharp intake of breath when he grabs a handful of hair and pulls. That gets him a bite, but he takes advantage of Jaehwan’s moment of victory to roll them over and trap him under his body.

Sanghyuk doesn’t know why he does that, can see his own surprise mirrored in Jaehwan’s eyes, but he can also see willingness there. This is new, different. Whatever their relationship is, it was always been about Jaehwan leading and Sanghyuk following, even before they started doing this. Jaehwan has always been on charge, demanding, and Sanghyuk has always been there to give whatever was asked of him. He marvels at the look on Jaehwan’s face under him, open and vulnerable. Sanghyuk feels the urge to kiss the tip of Jaehwan’s nose and doesn’t fight it; Jaehwan’s flush darkens and he wraps his legs around Sanghyuk’s waist, brings him closer, rakes his nails down his back and hides his face in the crook of his neck when he moans his name.

Sanghyuk wakes with a heavy feeling in his chest, remnants of the dream still in his vision. He looks around the dark room, and it takes him an extra second to find what woke him up; Jaehwan is standing there, next to the door, as if summoned from his dream.

“What are you doing here?” Sanghyuk looks to the empty bed next to him them. “Where’s Eunho?”

Jaehwan shrugs. “You were dreaming.” It’s not a question and Sanghyuk wonder if he said something out loud. “They should arrive in a fortnight,” Jaehwan adds, answering his first question, “the envoys.”

He looks small standing there, restrained, face bared. Sanghyuk sits up and pats the mattress next to him, and Jaehwan doesn’t sit but he steps closer, almost touching, and kneels in front of Sanghyuk.

“You could touch me,” Jaehwan whispers, looking into his eyes, seeing the protest—That would hurt you, I don’t want to hurt you—before it can come out of Sanghyuk’s mouth. “I want you to.”

And Sanghyuk wants, he wants so much, but he stops himself before he can touch Jaehwan’s face, his hand so close to his skin that Jaehwan can almost feel the ghost of a touch.

“You should go,” he whispers instead, and Jaehwan closes his eyes for a moment and stands up, not looking back before leaving the room.

Sanghyuk sits alone in the darkness thinking about the dream; about how when he woke up the next morning he was alone; about how the deep scratches on his back healed and the marks faded completely long before he saw Jaehwan again, walking along the streets of the capital surrounded by the Queen’s Guard.

*

“Again.” The flat of Nara’s sword hits Sanghyuk’s left thigh. “Stick your leg out further, and keep your foot straight, pointed,” Sanghyuk obeys, “and don’t bend your back.”

He’s restless, his usually sharp and precise movements are uncontrolled, his posture all wrong. Nara keeps pointing out his mistakes, again and again, trying to correct every last detail; usually he would feel grateful, this would make him push that little harder, until he hits every move as he should, makes his body completely bend to his will, but today it’s only exasperating. He can sense Nara’s disappointment too, and it’s only making things worse.

“From the beginning!” Nara shouts to everyone before getting into position.

Sunwoo shots him a death glare from the other side of the room for making them stay longer, but by the time they are done for the day and ready to eat and pass out they have managed to stay perfectly synchronised during the whole routine, and everyone is feeling accomplished.

“Did something happen with Jaehwan?” Sanghyuk chokes on his food, and Sooha takes the change to get a handful off his plate as he slides next to him on the table. “That’s why you have been so distracted today, right?” His mouth is full of stolen rice, his words almost unintelligible.

There’s no one near them when Sanghyuk looks around, but he still grabs Sooha by the back of his neck and takes him to his room. Eunho is, once again, nowhere to be seen, and Sooha sits on Sanghyuk’s bed uninvited.

“Did you two fight? I thought it was going well, you looked… happy?” He changes the tone of the last word to make it into a question as he’s saying it, as if unsure.

Sanghyuk doesn’t answer because he doesn’t know how to. Happiness isn’t the word he would use to describe what he’s been feeling these last few weeks, not in this situation—but it has been strangely comforting, as if everything was just sliding into its rightful place with Jaehwan next to him. He knows it’s all an illusion, that the curtain will fall at some point and that even if they manage to get out of here unscathed Jaehwan will end up leaving again, but he also knows that if he could go back in time and hear the rumours for the first time he would still join the troupe. He would go to the capital, he would look for Jaehwan. His heart would break for him, again. He would always come back, no matter where, as long as Jaehwan was there, and he would always fall in love with him.

Sooha ruffles his hair before leaving, a small gesture of understanding.

*

Sanghyuk can feel Jaehwan’s eyes on him, can almost feel the weight of his gaze on his body. He turns, moves his arms to the rhythm that only he can hear, and it feels different without swords but it also feels as familiar as breathing, his body having gone through the exact same motions so many times that he doesn’t have to think about what he’s doing anymore.

“You’ve gotten better,” Jaehwan says from where he’s sitting on the tree branch, his tone a mix of reproach and approval that Sanghyuk doesn’t completely understand, but it makes him feel proud. Jaehwan swings his legs absently.

“Do you miss it?”

“I miss a lot of things,” Jaehwan says, and he’s hanging upside down from the branch now, his legs firmly keeping him from falling head first to the ground. Most of his abdomen is exposed now, and Sanghyuk can see the shape of his ribs. “I’m not sure sword dancing is one of them.”

He could make a list of all the things he misses, but with Sanghyuk silently looking at him from under the shade of his tree, Jaehwan doesn’t feel like he deserves that. Sanghyuk starts dancing again, his moves fluid and precise, natural. Jaehwan sits back up, his eyes following every turn and thrust, every step, every swing of his imaginary swords.

“I’m singing for Nara.” Sanghyuk looks at him when he turns, and his eyes don’t leave Jaehwan’s again. Jaehwan’s palms start to itch, and he kicks his legs harder. “For her part,” he adds unnecessarily.

“Good,” Sanghyuk replies and turns, his eyes following his movement. And he means it, because he almost can’t imagine anything as beautiful as that would be.

*

Jaehwan opens his eyes, stares at the ceiling. It feels familiar now, this bed and these sheets and the ceiling above his head, the feeling of displacement having subdued long ago. He hates it. He doesn’t feel like he belongs in these rooms, feels the walls coming down around him and making it hard to breath when he stays still for too long, and he’s thankful for that, for having some part of him still resist this.

He slides off the bed, his feet hitting the rug the only sound in the room as he pads towards the balcony. He can see the gardens from here, can see a bit of the training grounds far off in the distance, where he knows Sanghyuk must be. He feels empty and full of some unnameable feeling all at once, like something crawling in his skin that wants to get out. He feels lost.

A gust of wind blows in through the open doors and he steels himself against the bite of the cold before stepping out. He closes his eyes, feels the weights on his arms and legs like anchors holding him back, the cold air piecing his skin. He stands there until Haesoo calls his name, his bath waiting for when he’s ready to step back inside.

Jaehwan feels a king of comfort in the water running down his back in rivulets, in the scrub of the rough cloth against his skin. It’s relaxing. There are flower petals floating on the water, swaying as he moves, and it brings back distant memories of a lily pond, soft playful touches. It calms him down, his breathing deepening when Haesoo crouches down next to him.

“You were right,” her voice is soft and sweet like a caress. He nods and Haesoo stands up, her long black hair brushing against Jaehwan’s shoulder as she moves.

He closes his eyes and slides down the bathtub until the water covers him completely. For a few seconds, he can’t hear anything, pretends he can’t feel anything either. But the Queen is waiting for him, and he sits back up and opens his eyes.

Two days, Jaehwan thinks, an unfathomable expression on his face as he steps out of the water.

*

“Kid, you find out anything new again?” The old man is looking at Sanghyuk with a bit too much intensity for his liking, probably expecting some last-minute information.

Sanghyuk shakes his head. “No, boss, everything is going as expected: two envoys with their whole entourage, about a dozen guards, arriving tomorrow with two carts and plenty of coffers to show their goodwill to our beloved Queen. They crossed the border two days ago, and should be within the city in the morning.”

Maybe Sanghyuk should be trying to sound a little less bored by all this, but he lost all interest in their original job a long time ago, if he ever had any to begin with, and it’s proving difficult to disguise as the moment draws closer. Not that the old man is paying that much attention to him, or knows about his plan to use them as distraction to spirit away the Queen’s most valued pet, but he should at least try to keep it that way. The others probably do; Sooha has hinted that much, and Nara would never say a word about it but she has been giving him those looks.

“Where we will be waiting with open arms,” the old man mutters, but by the time he has turned away from Sanghyuk he’s already well on his way to Jaehwan’s rooms.

The passages are like a second home to him now. He can go all the way to Jaehwan in the darkness, knows all the steps and turns by heart, can find the now familiar grooves in the panels without having to sweep his hand along the walls looking for them. He is about to open the last one before he hears someone else in the room with Jaehwan and stops, his hand dropping at his side.

“My beautiful pet,” comes a sweet gently voice, a slight tone of reproach as if chastising a misbehaving child, “you must not hurt yourself again, you know I don’t like that.”

“I’m sorry, Your Majesty,” Jaehwan’s voice sounds deferent and compliant, and Sanghyuk’s hands fist at his sides.

“I know you don’t like being restrained like this but a lesson had to be taught, and as long as you’re useful isn’t this a good arrangement?”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

“Now be a good pet and be careful with that. You will behave tomorrow, won’t you?”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

Sanghyuk can hear the bed creak under her when she moves, waits until he can hear the door quietly shut behind her and a few minutes extra just to be sure that she’s really gone, that they are alone. He can hear his own breathing, too loud, can feel his nails leaving half crescent marks on the palm of his hands.

“Did she touch you?” He must have been quieter and more sudden with his movements than what he was intending, because Jaehwan jumps slightly at his words.

“No, I’ve already told you before. She doesn’t touch me like that, ever. She’s just trying to… teach me a lesson,” Jaehwan half smiles, a humourless laugh leaving his lips. “Don’t ask me what the lesson is, tough. Probably ‘don’t ever try to fuck me over again’. This is just her way of,” he waves his arms around, the sleeves of his robe covering his hands when he drops his hands as he stands up from his bed, “her way of tormenting me just that little bit more, I guess. Have you been waiting long?”

He steps towards Sanghyuk, their bodies so close that they almost touch. It’s closer that they have been in a long time, and Sanghyuk has to look down to see his face.

“No, I just got here,” he can hear the change in his voice, his tone dropping at the proximity, deeper and lower, quieter. “I thought she never came to your rooms.”

“She doesn’t, usually, but today was a special occasion,” Jaehwan tilts his head, points to the divan where a box containing for new golden cuffs lays open. “They’re for tomorrow, and I already have this one on,” Jaehwan inches closer, baring his neck, “but they’re too delicate, so guess what.”

Sanghyuk doesn’t have time to answer or even process the fact the he isn’t wearing his bracelets before Jaehwan slides his arms around him, turns their bodies and half drags, half throws Sanghyuk in the general direction of his bed. He grabs onto him with arms and legs, his robe now open and hanging off his shoulders. He’s breathing raggedly on top of Sanghyuk, his naked body pressed against his clothed one.

“I’m never letting you go again,” Jaehwan almost sighs, content. The side of his head is pressed against Sanghyuk’s chest, and for a moment neither of them dares to move or even talk. It takes Sanghyuk a few more seconds to react, but when he finally does he slides his hands up Jaehwan’s back, his neck. He runs one hand over his hair, the shaved part at the sides and back, cups his face as if making sure that it really is him. Jaehwan turns his head, lifts it slowly to look at him properly. His eyes look wet with unshed tears, and Sanghyuk cups the other side of his face too, guides him upwards with both hands, towards him. Their lips meet and it’s slow and careful at first, both of them trying to be as delicate as possible, wordlessly asking for permission to keep going, but Jaehwan loses his patience first and straddles Sanghyuk’s hips, bites his lips before moving, not wanting to let them go.

“On second thought,” he breathes out, laboriously, “maybe just for a couple hours, because I can feel you getting hard and I’m not made out of stone.” Sanghyuk runs one of his hands down Jaehwan’s front; he’s not the only one. Jaehwan moans, his next words coming out breathless and shaky. “We deserve some fun, but after that we’re back to cuddling.”

*

Sanghyuk can tell that something is not right the moment the caravan comes into sight. For one because there are a lot more guards than they were expecting, and they seem to have been joined by a large number of the Queen’s own personal guard on their way to the city. The old man doesn’t seem surprised by this, which is odd. Sanghyuk had to leave Jaehwan’s rooms in a rush just a few hours ago, both of them having overslept after their overenthusiastic gymnastics the previous night. Jaehwan was particularly nervous, his hands trembling as he pushed Sanghyuk towards the door to the passages, grabbing his arm at the last moment and pressing a kiss to his lips one last time. Sanghyuk wonders if he’s just carried some of Jaehwan’s restlessness with him.

He can still hear the loud moans muffled against his lips, against his collarbone. He isn’t surprised to find a bitemark there when he changes into his clothes for the evening. There is nothing he would like more right at this moment that to go back to Jaehwan, but instead he’s practising with the rest of the artists that will be performing today, helping them with last minute details, waiting for the time that he and Jaehwan had agreed to meet at to arrive.

There’s no one at the patio when Sanghyuk gets there, and he has to wait a few minutes before he feels a light touch in one of his arms, the seconds slowing down until he feels the hand close around it.

“Careful, you’ll hurt yourself.”

Jaehwan winces but doesn’t let go. “Sorry, I just—it’s not any envoy.”

“What?”

It already feels like a confirmation that something was indeed wrong, and it almost makes Sanghyuk loose his balance. Jaehwan keeps talking hurriedly, his hand tightening around Sanghyuk’s arm.

“They sent the crown prince. He came disguised as one of his mother’s men to meet with the Queen. It appears he’s here to offer peace, but nobody knows why or in exchange for what. Maybe he wants to sign a treaty with the Queen, or maybe he wants to ask for her hand in marriage.”

“Marriage…” Sanghyuk mutters under his breath. That could mean so many good things for the kingdom, for the people, but this will make things much harder for them.

“Have you told me everything?” Jaehwan shakes him slightly, and it’s then when he notices that Jaehwan not only hasn’t let go of him, but that he’s holding onto his shoulders with both hands. He can see the burns forming under his bracelets. “Have you told me everything you know about the people you can here with?”

“I—yes, everything I know. Why, what’s—”

“And Kim? Did the old man seem surprised when he saw the caravan? When he saw the guards?”

“No, he wasn’t,” and Sanghyuk can feel Jaehwan’s nails piercing his skin through his clothes, can feel them scratch when he moves his hands to grab at his face.

“Listen to me: follow the plan. Do exactly as we have planned and come to me when I call, whatever happens. I know I don’t deserve to ask for this, but please, please trust me.”

“I will. I do.” And he does, he really does.

Maybe Jaehwan is right and he doesn’t deserve it, and maybe Sanghyuk will always be nothing more than a naïve teenager in love when it comes to him, but he would trust him with his life.

Jaehwan’s hold tightens and he almost crushes their mouths together. The kiss is raw and painful and quick, Sanghyuk’s nose hurts and he can’t tell if the whimpering coming from Jaehwan is because he hurt his too or because of those damned bracelets. Still, Jaehwan doesn’t let go of his face when their mouths part. He looks briefly over Sanghyuk’s shoulder and nods once at someone, looks into Sanghyuk’s eyes one last time before running off.

“Come to me when I call,” he pleads.

*

The crowd seems as surprised as Sanghyuk felt earlier when the crown prince is announced, so at least he wasn’t the last one to find out. Everyone feels a little unprepared suddenly for what the reception has turned out to be, but other than that everything seems to be going perfectly.

Courtesans come and go around the room preoccupied, apparently happy about this new development and trying to gather as much information as possible from the other guests. Sanghyuk keeps getting distracted by all the movement, the colours surrounding him, the light reflecting off so many jewels. It seems that everyone is determined to show just how wealthy and prosperous they are, and his troupe is busy weaving between the bodies and taking as much as they can without drawing too much attention. Sanghyuk has seen Sooha leave the room twice already, presumably to empty the hidden pockets sewn on the inside of his clothes. The kid is good, he’ll give him that.

Jaehwan is sitting close to the Queen, in front of her and to the side. Two other pets sit to each side of him, twins, both sisters pretending he’s not here, with the Queen’s own attendants standing behind the three of them. At the other side of the Queen sits the crown prince, much closer, but Sanghyuk can’t stop staring at Jaehwan.

He’s dressed in white as usual, his trousers long and widening towards the bottom before abruptly disappearing under his ankle bracelets, thick and longer than the ones he usually wears. Delicate chains hang from the heavy sash around his waist and a white sleeveless blouse covers his torso, his upper arms bare. He’s covered from his wrists to about a third of his forearms by smooth long bracelets matching the ones on his ankles, the choker around his neck expanding sideways and downwards over his shoulders and chest, probably his back too. Sanghyuk catches his eyes then, and Jaehwan’s passing glance lingers just that tiny bit longer on his face. His eyes are lined in black, long and thick smudged wings accentuating their shape. Twin thick gold strips adorn his eyelids, catching the light as he looks around, his cheeks slightly flushed and his lips rose coloured. Sanghyuk is feeling a mix of uncertainty and disbelief, mostly about Jaehwan being able to move at all with all the jewellery hanging all over his person. If the Queen wants to prove just how rich her kingdom is, well, that is certainly a way.

As the floor clears in anticipation for the next act, Sanghyuk watches one of the Queen’s attendants put her right hand behind the tiny choker hidden under Jaehwan’s neck piece, and he can see it sliding out from under it before completely disappearing from sight. Jaehwan stands up, slowly.

The troupe is also wearing mostly white clothes, a cream middle layer in the skirts, their dark sashes and short jakes standing out against the bright fabric. Nara is dressed in white only, to stand out, and she appears to glow under the light of the room as her sword dances around her.

Sanghyuk loses himself in the music, lets his body take him through the steps. He turns, his sword pointed towards Sunwoo. The swing, turn, and step to the sides to make way for Eunho and Sooha. His feet take him in circles around Nara before they all pick up their second swords, waiting for them at their designated spots. Swing, swirl, down. Back straight, left leg out, foot pointed.

They fan out around Nara, kneel, leave their swords on the floor at their feet, pointed towards her. Jaehwan’s voice fills the room then, and Sanghyuk knows that he is not using his magic, but he can feel it there on the edges of every word, waiting. Nara spins once, twice; jumps and thrusts at them, never making contact; slices the air above Sanghyuk’s and Sunwoo’s heads. She twirls and jumps, high, landing with one of her knees bent and her hand towards the floor to grab her second sword, her other arm with her other sword pointed backwards and upwards.

Everyone is staring at her, mesmerised, her skirts floating as she turns again and again, faster, the movement turning almost frenetic if not for the sheer control she has over her body, the edge of her swords following her body, and she drops into her ending pose.

Jaehwan doesn’t stop singing, the song changing into something Sanghyuk doesn’t recognise, and he can feel the shift on his voice before the figures appear. There’s a moment of general confusion and he sees it then; Sooha’s sword missing from its spot on the floor nearest to the Queen, the old man holding it in his hands as he fights the figures separating him from the crown prince. Jaehwan’s soldiers are barely stopping him, their movements are too slow and clumsy, and they keep disappearing every time one of them is cut down. People start reacting them, real guards coming closer. Jaehwan is still singing when the old man turns and punches him in the face. Too close.

Sanghyuk has almost made it to their side, the hilt of his sword already descending towards the old man’s face, when he sees his blade bite into Jaehwan’s lower abdomen. He curves the move as it goes and redirects it, his sword dropping to the floor with the old man’s body.

Jaehwan staggers and Sanghyuk grabs him before he can hit the ground, the sound of metal clashing surrounding them. Nara and Sunwoo are fighting the guards, trying to stop them from coming towards them.

“Ah, fuck, it hurts. And I told you to come when I called you and I haven’t yet.”

The area around them has cleared a bit and Sanghyuk takes the chance to pick Jaehwan up, He can see the others fighting, Sooha appearing out of nowhere and clearing a path for them, keeping anyone from following.

“What the fuck where you thinking?!” His voice comes out too loud and high.

“I wasn’t, I—ow, fuck, this really hurts.” Sanghyuk would really like to be more careful, but the corridor is empty and he knows this is probably their only chance. He thinks about the others, still fighting, trying to buy them some time. He sees Haesoo then, signalling to them from around a corner. Eunho stops Sanghyuk before they get too close, hands him a blade and nods before guiding them all through the stairs to the kitchen. They stop next to a column, the entrance to the passage already open.

“Take this and go,” Haesoo urges, placing a handkerchief on his hand and closing it tightly around if. Sanghyuk puts it in his sash, and she moves Jaehwan’s hair out of his face before turning and disappearing with Eunho down the corridor towards the stairs. Jaehwan whines in his arms.

Sanghyuk knows his next part, has been down here to inspect it before, has memorised the details of the path that Jaehwan followed to leave the city the only time he actually did; the path they have to follow now to get away, through the passages and into the tunnels.

They’re out of sight and hopefully out of mind before Sanghyuk notices just how much blood he’s covering in. He lowers Jaehwan carefully to the floor and starts when he notices just how bad it looks. There’s not enough light to inspect the wound and they can’t stop moving, not now, not when they are so close, but his clothes are dyed crimson. Sanghyuk rips off one of his skirts, keeps it pressed against Jaehwan’s wound.

“The ring,” Jaehwan lets out with some effort, “the signet ring Haesoo gave you… take these cuffs off me.”

Sanghyuk takes out the bloody handkerchief, the ring. He looks for the dent in the bracelets, sees the hinges appear where there was nothing, and takes them off and drops them to the floor. It’s getting difficult to breathe for Jaehwan, and he doesn’t want to look down but he does and there’s so much blood. He presses Sanghyuk’s skirt harder against his stomach.

“Leave on all the rest, we’re taking everything we can,” he tries to say that with a smile but it comes out forced and hollow.

Sanghyuk does as he’s asked silently, carefully picks up Jaehwan again and starts walking, trying not to move him too much. He’s getting heavier as they keep going, more quiet, and Sanghyuk has to ask him to sing to try and make him stay awake, stay with him. Jaehwan does, but it’s coming out harder and harder to hear.

“I’m dying, right?” He asks after what feels like years.

“You’re not,” and Sanghyuk says that fiercely and with a lot more conviction that he’s actually feeling. There is no way to tell how badly he’s hurt, not until they get out of here and can find help or at least look at the wound under a proper light, but Jaehwan is not dying tonight; Sanghyuk refuses to let him. “You’re not,” he says again, mostly trying to convince himself.

Jaehwan laughs, short and humourless. “You’re crying,” and Sanghyuk can hear him sniff weakly.

Sanghyuk keeps walking, Jaehwan heavy in his arms, the silence deafening. Jaehwan tries to sing again, can’t remember the words and gives up trying to make sense of it until he has to stop to breathe.

“You’re not the only one,” Jaehwan starts again a moment later, and it’s getting harder to understand him now, “I know you’ve always thought you were, but it’s not true.” Sanghyuk is just letting him talk now, listening intently and trying not to start sobbing. “There’s a reason I kept coming back, you know. I… caught feelings too,” Jaehwan makes an exasperated noise at himself then, “and I’m not going to die without telling you, damn it Jaehwan.”

“You’re not,” Sanghyuk interrupts, holding back his tears.

“Shhh,” Jaehwan admonishes him, his next words slurred, “I love you.”

Sanghyuk cries the rest of the way out of the tunnels, carrying Jaehwan into the light.

*

“You did what,” Sanghyuk deadpans.

He can’t believe what he just heard. No, actually he can, and he’s not sure if that is making it better or worse.

Jaehwan is propped up on their bed—their bed in their room that they are paying for with all the crown jewels that they stole—staring indignantly at Sanghyuk. “Did you seriously expect me to just sit still in a cage and do nothing? Really? It’s like you don’t even know me.”

“First: you were not in a cage; and second: of course not, but planning a fake murder is a little extreme even for you. And third! I was there too! Helping to get you out, if I remember correctly?”

“I know! That’s why I tried to call it off almost as soon as you agreed to help. How was I supposed to know that the old man had somehow found out who was really coming into the castle and that he would get hired to actually murder the crown prince?”

Sanghyuk grits his teeth. “So, of course, you had to stop him yourself.”

“Well, yes! It was kind of my fault, and we still had to run. I had some help.”

“Haesoo.”

“And probably Eunho, not that I know much about that.”

Sanghyuk deflates, the fight going out of him. “You could have died,” he says, voice suddenly tiny. Jaehwan’s hands subconsciously move towards his stomach, where the bandages are.

“I thought we agreed we were never bringing up again that fact that I thought I was dying instead of passing out because of blood loss?” And yes, he’s right; the sash took most of the damage from the blade, and even thought it hurt and he got cuts all over his stomach, some of the jewels stabbing at him, the fact is that it really hadn’t been as bad as either of them thought. Sanghyuk didn’t want to say it out loud, that he could still have died if not for the village next to where they left the tunnels. Most of the wounds would disappear almost completely in time, and the few scars that remained would probably remind them of the worst or at least scariest night of their lives so far, but that was it, and they had agreed not to bring it up again. Ever.

“We’re not.”

“Good, because you can’t get mad at me.”

“Why?”

“Because I love you,” Jaehwan smiles, and that’s something that is happening a lot now, too.

Sanghyuk will never get tired of hearing Jaehwan say it, but it’s still embarrassing and it makes him feel like a giddy teenager, distracts him enough to not be able to tell Jaehwan that that’s not how it works. He flops down on the bed next to Jaehwan, inches closer to his face. Their noses bump and they both laugh, still getting used to this, to them, and Sanghyuk kisses Jaehwan softly.

“We have to go back for the others now, right?” Jaehwan asks, already knowing the answer.

They got word from Haesoo and Eunho the very next day after leaving the castle, and while the four of them had managed to get out safely, Nara, Sunwoo, and Sooha hadn’t been so lucky. As far as they know they aren’t being charged with the attempt on the prince’s life, but their stashes of stolen jewels from the night of have been found, and there is no easy way to explain that.

“Yep,” Sanghyuk answers.

Jaehwan groans, burying his face into the crook of Sanghyuk’s neck. He can feel his lips moving against his skin when he says, “Tomorrow.”