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the hottest flame

Chapter Text

The Royal Palace, Seo Youngho learns in the first minute he is in it, is far bigger than he thought it to be.

When the carriage carrying him and his escort passes the Main Gate, tall and grand, Youngho is amazed to learn that there is not just one ceremonial hall, but three, all of which for different occasions; the North Hall, furthest from the Main Gate, for official ceremonies, the West Hall, for personal ceremonies, and the East Hall, for royal ceremonies, equipped with a grand bay opening up to the rest of the city.

The Main Courtyard present after the Main Gate is heaps larger than any Youngho has ever seen, filled with pots and pots of flowers in bloom and planted with are tall trees bearing pink and orange fruit. It is far more extravagant, if Youngho could admit, than the Central Courtyard back in Mapo, where Emperor Yang held his reign. There is no doubt that the state of Cheongdam, larger and bounds more prosperous, is one that cannot be rivalled, but Youngho was unaware of how vast the difference was. Now that he is here, days and hours away from his hometown, Youngho need not much to know that it is a life far different from the one he has been tasked to leave behind.

Even as Youngho peeks from behind the curtains, handmaidens and valets continue rushing about with rolls of cloth and beautification materials in their arms and on their backs, clearly unbothered by the presence of an unmarked carriage. His jaw drops when they pass between two buildings and he sees that the palace grounds never seems to end. Hundreds of wooden buildings as far as his eyes can see, painted in white and brown and green and red, with roofs a royal blue.

Thoroughly overwhelmed, Youngho sits back in the wooden seat, heart thumping wildly at the thought of having to live here until whenever Emperor Lee decides that he is no longer needed.

While the state of Cheongdam might have the upper hand in all else, it is unquestionable that the state of Mapo had a far more advanced language and culture division, having made friendly ties with foreign diplomats some years ago. As such, Emperor Lee, a smart man, has traded yards of silk for the possession of an individual qualified, well-versed in the language of English and the practice of proper elocution to guide his five princes.

Out of hundreds of applicants, Youngho was the youngest at twenty-and-two.

It is unsure why he was picked; some of the things he had heard in passing were unsavoury and purely in horrible taste, but some mentioned that Emperor Lee required a boy with no ties nor alliances, while others mentioned that the Emperor was in preparation for the unveiling of the heir to the throne, that his sons were to be prepared for when foreign dignitaries are set to arrive in the Royal Palace. Whatever it was, Youngho was warned by his matron to not ask such questions during his stay at the palace, that he should do well to keep to himself and do his parents’ proud.

The carriage comes to an abrupt lurch, and so does Youngho’s stomach. His escort, Oh Sehun, best friend and roommate from the adoption house, shakes his head when Youngho reaches to open the door. He was allowed to bring along a friend, a kind notion from the Emperor himself, as it has been made clear that Youngho will not be assigned any help during his stay, and there was no one better but him. Although neither of them were learned in the practices within the Royal Palace, Youngho is glad to have Sehun around.

Sehun’s hunch is correct, and the door is opened by a valet donned in an off-white robe and pasty green pants.

“Scholar Seo,” the valet says, and Youngho waits a second before getting off the carriage, Sehun in tow.

The ground is solid under his feet and it feels good after days of riding in the carriage, no matter how many rounds of godori he has won Sehun in. The valet shuts the carriage door, running to get their belongings as well.

There is another man, dressed in royal blue robes that near match the colour of the tiled roofs, and from that alone Youngho assumes he is of a higher rank.

Again, he is not wrong,

“Royal Advisor Kim Kibum,” the man turns, feline eyes and a tight smile. “Royal Advisor Kim to you, Scholar.”

“Actually,” Youngho starts, and Royal Advisor Kim blinks. “I’m not really a scholar, I didn’t take the Imperial Exam or – ”

“You will be a scholar soon enough,” Royal Advisor Kim quips, turning on his heels and motioning for both Youngho and Sehun to scurry along. “The Emperor has made time to meet the both of you, you will do well not to waste it.”

Without much else to say, Youngho follows mutely, Sehun trailing behind. The path to wherever Royal Advisor Kim is leading them to is thoroughly confusing and filled with wide halls and tall ceilings, that if Youngho were made to retrace his steps, he would not know from start to finish. Soon, the hallway gives through to a grand-looking room equipped with a large throne, Youngho is awestruck by the intricate embellishments on the walls and ceilings, jaw dropping for the second time that afternoon.

“On your knees!” Royal Advisor Kim hisses, eyes flashing as if Youngho were daft. Sehun yanks him by the sleeve when his limbs refuse to work, and they are in their proper positions before Emperor Lee steps into the room, clad in a regal red robe, the colour only the Emperor is fit to wear whilst on palace grounds.

The meeting with Emperor Lee goes without a hitch. They are released from their positions the moment the Emperor is seated, and are generously thanked for their future services they are to provide in the Royal Palace. Youngho is honoured the title of a scholar, while Sehun is honoured the title of a valet (a position higher than a simple commoner in the city). Before the Emperor takes his leave, he mentions that Youngho will be granted access to the Royal Library, and that he hopes his four princes will not be difficult to handle.

It is, when they are ushered back out into the hall, that Royal Advisor Kim dampens the mood once more,

“Do you not know that you must kneel before the Emperor!” He snaps, dragging Youngho and Sehun by the arms, away from the chamber. Youngho could easily push away from the tiny man, but he thinks it would be better if he did not. “Imagine what the Emperor would have thought if you did not bow!”

“Sorry,” Youngho mumbles, and Royal Advisor Kim tuts disapprovingly.

“Do not slur your words, Scholar, that is why you are here, is it not?” He goes on without waiting for an answer, “Both of you will be taught the proper mannerisms before you are even allowed to serve in the palace,” he grouses, rushing once more. Youngho and Sehun follow along, “You could not have arrived at a busier time!”

Youngho wants to argue that his arrival at the palace really had nothing to do with him, but the look Sehun is sending his way has him asking instead, “May I ask why is that?”

“There are many preparations to be made, Scholar,” Royal Advisor Kim leads them through a courtyard. “The unveiling of the Crown Prince is in a year, an event you should do well to prepare for as well.”

Youngho tries not to be distracted by the handmaiden carrying a potted flower, white and in bloom, “‘Crown Prince’?”

Royal Advisor Kim clicks his tongue, seemingly frustrated at Youngho’s lack of knowledge, “The Crown Prince, the heir to the throne, Scholar. You will be tutoring the Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth Princes, and – ”

Youngho pipes up, “What about the First Prince?”

“You will do your best to not interrupt,” Royal Advisor Kim sighs, defeated. He waits for Youngho to apologise before continuing, “The Prince Royal does not require your help. You shall be focused on only what is handed to you, understood?”

“Yes,” Youngho answers, ignoring his curiosity in favour of admiring the courtyard, now that Royal Advisor Kim is finished with his little speech.

  

x

 

It is seven days since his arrival at the Royal Palace and Youngho is exhausted. His training was more stringent than Sehun’s, who seemed like he was having a wild time chattering and making friends with the other valets. Youngho, on the other hand, was still under Royal Advisor Kim’s handling. It did not help that Youngho was tasked to memorise the map of the Palace Grounds, as he was to travel between the princes’ quarters every evening for their lessons.

During that time, he has learnt that each of the princes have their own quarters, equipped with a big enough courtyard, and adjacent to which is where their concubines are to stay (with exclusion for the Fifth Prince; Youngho is told that the youngest of the princes is only ten-and-seven).

Though, he has yet to see where the First Prince (or Prince Royal, Royal Advisor Kim does well to remind him that the prince has two titles) resided, but he has heard of it; far from the main grounds and help quarters, surrounded by a large enough courtyard to fill hundreds of flowers and trees. Youngho was told by Handmaiden Yoo that it used to be the summer palace gifted to the Empress Dowager, but the First Prince was so favoured that it was given to him as his coming of age present (when he turned ten-and-eight). It is said to be a solitary building, rumoured to be without a concubines’ residence beside it, but no one is ever sure. The valets and handmaidens working under the First Prince are greatly loyal, and Youngho has not met one during his stay so far.

 

It is after a long day of lessons with Royal Advisor Kim that has Youngho tossing and turning in bed. He was promptly failing at learning how to bow (the proper way!) while in his robes, legs too long to be folded daintily, robes too long so as to keep catching on the heels of his foot whenever he tried to stand. Youngho is starting to fear that he might never accomplish what he has been tasked to do, not with the way he was struggling with his own lessons.

Body aflame from being under his blanket and the piles of robes he has been set to wear to sleep, Youngho groans quietly, submitting to the urge and getting out of bed. While Sehun was tasked to sleep in the valets’ quarters, Youngho has been assigned his own room, in a small building with a small courtyard, deemed fit enough for an actual scholar.

He sighs in relief when he sheds the robes, cool air hitting him, relieving him of some discomfort.

Then, his stomach growls.

Frowning, Youngho tries to ignore it, but it’s grumbling again in the next minute, and he sighs. Lessons with Royal Advisor Kim often went on for too long, leaving Youngho late for dinner or even missing his meals completely. His sleep addled mind takes the reign on his limbs and Youngho leaves his room, trying to make his way to the valets’ kitchens, in hopes of getting something, anything, to eat.

A long time of wandering later, Youngho realises that he is lost.

The courtyard looks far different than any he has seen and he doesn’t recognise any of buildings around him, which is difficult to believe since his room was merely beside the valets’ quarters. Worried that he might be caught by Royal Advisor Kim for roaming around in the depths of the night (clad in just his pants, no doubt), Youngho turns away quickly, but he is rightfully stunned when his eyes catch the sight of a –

A boy.

It’s a ghost, is Youngho’s first thought. A chill runs up his spine when the boy blinks. He has blue eyes.

Youngho is afraid to move. He’s barely aware if he was still breathing. Even in the dim light of a dying candle by the boy’s side, Youngho is immediately taken by the boy’s beauty; grey hair or maybe even white, pale skin and true blue eyes, sharp and steady. He takes a deep breath, afraid that the piercing gaze was enough to puncture a hole through his chest. Good, he thinks, I’m still alive.

“Are you real?” Youngho whispers, wincing when he hears himself.

The boy merely lifts his brows, giving Youngho an intent once-over as if he was surprised Youngho was even speaking.

Can ghosts do that? Youngho thinks. They can’t do that, can they? He looks at the boy warily, studying him as well. He has never seen anyone with blue eyes, clear and untainted. Surely, the boy must be a ghost of some kind.

In that moment, Youngho wishes he had fought the urge to leave his robe in his room, because he is feeling absolutely naked without it. On the other hand, the boy has what looks like blue silk draped around his narrow shoulders, clinging onto him like water.

“Sorry,” Youngho swallows thickly, backing away from the boy. If it was a ghost, Youngho has little confidence in running away. “I was just looking for the kitchens.”

The boy remains quiet, expressionless.

“Sorry,” Youngho has apologised more in seven days at the Royal Palace than he has in his entire life. “I mean the valets’ kitchens.” He stops himself before asking if the boy were a valet too, because it would be daft to assume so, especially when the boy looked like he would never step in such a place.

Again, Youngho has doubts to whether or not the boy is breathing.

“Sorry,” he repeats, and Youngho would bow, if he were not afraid of the spirit charging at him if he so much as looked away. “I should probably leave,” Youngho inches away, shooting his arms out behind him, lest he falls off the veranda.

The boy lifts an arm, and Youngho muffles the squeak in his throat. The voice is not deep, but it is still deeper than Youngho expected. Candidly speaking, he was unsure what he expected, he was unsure if he was even meeting with a spirit or a hallucination fuelled by sleepless and hungry nights,

“The valets’ kitchens are towards that way, Scholar Seo.”

The thought of asking the boy how he knew of Youngho’s existence is kicked out of his mind when he hightails out of the courtyard, rushing to get away from what Youngho deems to be the only spiritual encounter he wants to have in his life.

   

(He mentions this encounter to Sehun, who laughs, and Youngho decides that he must have been dreaming, for such a beauty of white hair and blue eyes has yet to grace his presence again.)

 

x

 

By the end of the first month of his stay, Youngho is well acquainted with the princes; Second Prince Minhyuk, who enjoyed hearing Youngho read him books than actually reading the book himself. Third Prince Minwoo, who was serious about his studies, but was unable to grasp many of the concepts on proper pronunciation and gave up easily. Fourth Prince Minjeong, who did not see a point in learning the language, choosing instead to meet with his concubines whenever Youngho requested they have lessons.

Youngho has never been asked to pick favourites, but if he were, of the four princes he has met, he would pick Fifth Prince Minhyung, who seemed to enjoy Youngho’s company as well. He was the most diligent of the four and the hardest worker, if their lessons were anything to go by. Fifth Prince Minhyung was often busy with visits out into the village, but he never failed to make time for their lessons. Youngho was on speaking terms with all of the princes by now, but he enjoys tutoring the youngest the most, no matter how many questions the prince seemed to be curious about.

  

However, it has now been six months of his arrival and Youngho has yet to meet the First Prince, not to mention see the prince in flesh. His name was unknown to Youngho too, as everyone seemed to refer to him by ‘his Royal Highness’ or ‘the First Prince’. Youngho thinks it could be of some variation of Min, seeing as how the other princes have followed the name of her Royal Majesty, Empress Lee Minhye, but no one he asks seems to know the answer (nor do they want to talk about it).

The only valet who has ever answered any of his questions is Valet Jung Jaehyun, one of the busiest valets in the Royal Palace, seeing as he is the only of First Prince’s first ranked valets. Youngho has never asked explicitly about the First Prince, knowing that those under him are stubbornly loyal, and Valet Jung does well to retain that honor, only singing praises of the First Prince.

He learns from Valet Jung that the First Prince is smart. His Royal Highness spends hours upon hours in the Royal Library, though Youngho has never seen him while scouring for more books to introduce the princes to. Valet Jung also mentioned that the First Prince was the only one that did not require Youngho’s help as he is already well-versed in the language of English, having had earnestly studied the topic on his own.

This, however, does nothing to help sate Youngho’s curiosity.

To Sehun’s endless encouragement, Youngho asks Handmaiden Yoo, who might or might not have a bit of a crush on Youngho, if there were anything she could let tell on the First Prince. Under a threat that she will have him called for execution (nothing of which is under her power), she shares the meagre information she has gathered from the handmaidens of the other princes;

For one, the First Prince has to have the entire courtyard cleared out before he graces it, and to when Youngho asks for the reason, Handmaiden Yoo flicks him on the back of the neck, I am merely a messenger, not the answer, Scholar. A boy, usually one of the First Prince’s lower ranking valets, will be sent ahead to have the gardens cleared out, for anyone caught while the First Prince is there, shall receive enough punishments to last the entirety of Winter.

For another, it was true that the First Prince did not have concubines nor consorts. There was only one, a tale of Consort Seohyun, picked only by the Empress Dowager when the First Prince was only ten-and-three. Consort Seohyun was several years older, and was only to care for the First Prince until he relinquished her of her title and duties when he turned ten-and-seven. She now serves under Fourth Prince Minjeong.

The First Prince had no handmaidens above the rank of five either. Youngho’s only met Valet Jung, and followed Valet Jeon Wonwoo and Valet Kim Yugyeom, both of whom were rank two.

It is information that does nothing to help prepare Youngho for the first time he does meet the First Prince.

 

 “Fifth Prince Minhyung,” a young valet Youngho has seen running across courtyard before is bowing deeply at the entrance to Minhyung’s chambers, where they are in the midst of a lesson. “The First Prince is set to arrive in a matter of moments.”

Youngho freezes up, nearly dropping the book in his hands.

“Brother?” Minhyung says, looking a lot more relieved at the break from Youngho’s lessons than anything else. “He didn’t say anything about coming by during dinner.”

The valet says nothing, keeping his head bowed.

“Should I leave?” Youngho asks, already packing his things up. Really, there shouldn’t be anything he should be afraid of, but Youngho’s been living on palace grounds without ever seeing the First Prince, and to see him… It causes a stir in his gut.

“It’s okay,” Minhyung shrugs. “He’s probably worried about the ceremony.”

Ah, Youngho thinks. Minhyung was soon to turn ten-and-eight in four months, and the palace has never been busier. It was also spread through the grapevine that Minhyung was undertaking more official duties, mostly just around the Inner Court. Empress Lee is very fond of her youngest prince, and Minhyung was only set out of the palace to converse with the people of Cheongdam on notified days.

Youngho gets up from his seat, preparing to bow, forehead to the floor, when Minhyung asks,

“What are you doing?”

“This is the first I am meeting the First Prince,” Youngho replies, getting to his knees. It has been a while since he has gotten in such a position, an action reserved for when one is graced by the presence of high royalty for the first time, something that he was taught by Royal Advisor Kim. While most of the princes were fine with just a bow to the waist, the First Prince was Prince Royal. Youngho did not know much, but he was well aware that The First Prince was the highest regard in the eyes of Emperor Lee, and he was the first in line for the throne, making him the impending Crown Prince as well.

He would do well to err on the side of caution.

“Oh,” Minhyung gets up too, brushing a hand through his black hair.

“How is the First Prince?” Youngho asks as they wait for his arrival.

“In a word?” Minhyung stifles a yawn. “Impressive.”

That does nothing to ease Youngho’s worries, and he immediately imagines the First Prince to be a big burly man, “And what makes you say that?”

Minhyung remains standing, hands behind his back, a polite gesture, “They say nothing happens in the palace without Brother knowing,” he too straightens his robes, in anticipation of the First Prince’s arrival. “Brother Minjeong likes to joke that he holds more power than the Empress Dowager… which I think is not untrue sometimes.”

That is certainly saying something. The Empress Dowager held the most power after the Emperor when it came to businesses in the Inner Court.

Youngho wants to ask for the First Prince’s name, but the door is opened again, and Youngho’s forehead is on the floor in the next second.

The voice is so terribly familiar, “Good evening.”

Self-restraint has never been one of Youngho’s qualities. He looks up before he can stop himself, barely registering that Valet Jung is staring at him wide-eyed, shaking his head at Youngho’s impulsiveness.

It’s the boy.

But not.

Youngho wants to scramble to his feet and run out the door because the First Prince is looking at him right now, completely corporeal and very, very, very much alive. Youngho can barely take his eyes off the First Prince, having met with such ethereal beauty for the second time in his life, and he thanks all of the deities he can list right of the bat for blessing him so.

The First Prince’s hair is not grey, like what Youngho had thought it to be, but white. White like the sugar Youngho’s seen in the kitchens, like the clouds in the sky, like purest thing Youngho has ever laid eyes on. The First Prince’s eyes are truly blue, not a catch of the light like Youngho had thought. Blue like the frozen lake during the harshest winters Youngho’s ever seen, like the colour of cornflower but far lighter, far more perfect.

Though it is not silk nor as thin as the one from that night, the First Prince is in a robe with the same shade of pale blue, and Youngho berates himself for not making the connection earlier; pale blue was reserved for the Prince Royal and Crown Prince, both roles currently under the First Prince’s name, while red was solely reserved for the Emperor.

If the First Prince recognises him, he does well to hide it,

“You may rise, Scholar Seo.”

Youngho remains on his knees, limbs locked together in shock.

Minhyung takes no note of Youngho’s current state of mind, “Brother! This is my language tutor, Scholar Youngho. He mentions that you have not met?”

Youngho reels inwardly, as if he’s been transported back to that night, speaking to the First Prince in such an informal tone, thinking that a person with such prestige around them could work as a servant. Six months is long enough at the Royal Palace for Youngho to realise that he needs to apologise for his mistake for speaking out of line,

He had asked the First Prince if he was real. And Youngho was shirtless.

“My deepest apologies, your Royal Highness, for I had spoken with such carelessness, I am – ”

The First Prince’s voice is levelled, “I said you may rise, Scholar.”

Youngho does, thankful that his legs did not fail him as he did so, surprised to find that the First Prince is not much taller than Minhyung was, his crown barely reaching past Youngho’s chin. But the First Prince is just as Youngho has heard about, a heavy weight of esteem and dignity around him, just from the way he carried himself, far different from Prince Minjeong who Youngho’s tutored while insistent on laying across daybeds.

In that split second, he makes the comparison to Minhyung, who seemed very much like the First Prince, the same steadiness in their eyes. Though, Youngho only sees this when Minhyung is struggling with work, determined not to fail at grasping concepts or memorising hundreds of vocabularies. It seemed the First Prince’s eyes paralleled heavily guarded walls, and it did not matter that the First Prince is shorter; his gaze alone is enough to have Youngho cower.

“Apologies for interrupting your lessons, Minhyung, but I have tasked Handmaiden Kim to prepare a meal for you.”

Youngho is clueless as to where to look when the First Prince is speaking. He settles for the ground.

“But I have already eaten,” Minhyung says.

The First Prince moves further into the room, and Youngho’s is too stunned to move, not even when the First Prince is merely an arm’s away from him, smelling a lot like lavender Youngho’s never smelled before. Youngho takes quiet inhale, feeling a little light headed.

“Yes,” the First Prince says. “But not enough. Stirring your food with chopsticks is far from being considered eating,” he quips, “Neither is it considered good table manners.”

Youngho lifts his head to watch the interaction, and he think he sees a twinkle in the eyes of the First Prince, and his heart literally thumps out the window. He has never had the chance to explore what he has been given (a girl back in Mapo, Kim Jisoo), and –

He stops the thought immediately.

Minhyung whines, “Brother…”

“I am sure Scholar Seo has no problems with you having a proper meal,” Youngho has to physically restrain himself from stumbling backwards when the First Prince turns to look at him, imposing stare cold like glaciers, “Am I wrong?”

Youngho bows politely, “You are not wrong, your Royal Highness.” He turns to Minhyung, “Your Highness, please excuse me in favour of having a proper meal. Your health must be placed at utmost priority."

Minhyung sighs, “Okay, but – ”

The First Prince interrupts, “Should I be offended, Brother, that you listen to Scholar Seo more than you do to me? Does it perhaps have to do with Scholar Seo being your favourite tutor?”

Youngho grins at the praise, and Minhyung groans, “You are terribly embarrassing, Brother.” Moving forward, he pinches Youngho on the arm, “And don’t be too happy, there isn’t much competition when the rest of my tutors are four times my age.”

Youngho tilts his head in a humble nod, “I am honoured with however you wish to conceal such high praise, your Highness.”

Minhyung grumbles, and his age shows in the moment, “You are both terrible.”

Youngho didn’t know what to expect, but he certainly wasn’t expecting to hear the First Prince laugh, full of mirth, hiding his smile behind a hand. Before Youngho can dwell on what a pity it was that he wasn’t able to see the First Prince’s smile, Handmaiden Kim enters with two others. He steps aside to gather up his books and notes as they set up a small table for Minhyung to dine on.

Just as Youngho prepares to excuse himself, the First Prince says, “I shall take my leave now.”

Minhyung looks up from where he’s salivating at the food, obviously hungry, “Will you not stay and dine with me, Brother?”

The First Prince seems to consider it for a while, and Youngho is sure he’s hallucinating when his eyes flit over to Youngho for a fraction of a second, “I have some studying of my own to get to, Minhyung, but rest assured, for if you miss my presence, you shall be graced with it again at breakfast.”

Youngho bites back a laugh, and he isn’t surprised to see that the First Prince has noticed.

Minhyung narrows his eyes, “Your brand of humour is astonishing, Brother.”

“And so, I shall take my leave now,” the First Prince turns to Handmaiden Kim, “Be sure he leaves not one grain of rice untouched. The Empress will be saddened to hear that the baby of the palace is refusing to eat.”

“Brother!” Minhyung groans, burying his face into his hands. The First Prince leaves then, waving goodbye to the room. Youngho loiters in Minhyung’s room, revising what they had gone through for the day, not at all buying time for when he had to leave too. Bumping into the First Prince would prove disastrous, yet again.

Valet Jeon seems to be carrying a message that proves otherwise, “The First Prince is requesting your presence, Scholar Seo.”

Youngho nearly drops the armload of books and scrolls, ignoring Minhyung’s laugh as he follows Valet Jeon out where the First Prince is waiting, standing at the edge of the courtyard, head tilted to look up at the moon. Valet Jung gives him an encouraging pat on the back, pushing Youngho towards the First Prince before Youngho can take off in the other direction.

“My apologies, your Royal Highness, I was unaware my presence was – ”

“Be still, scholar,” the First Prince is calm. “It is fine.”

That shuts Youngho up. He waits for the First Prince to continue, but he turns to speak to Valet Jung instead, voice dropped to converse in hushed tones. Youngho wonders what he is requesting, but the question is answered when the First Prince begins his stride, the row of valets and handmaidens keeping their distance. Youngho is able to understand that much, scurrying forth to keep up with the First Prince’s slow pace. They walk in silence, passing by courtyards Youngho’s only seen from afar, not really knowing where he was going,

“Tell me, Scholar,” the First Prince breaks the silence. “How is my brother progressing in his studies.”

Youngho takes a moment to answer, figuring that the First Prince would appreciate a well-thought out answer than a generic one, “He is progressing fairly quickly, and he is meticulous with his work, refusing to give up even in the late hours of the night, a trait I feel is deserving of mention.”

He fondly recalls Minhyung insisting on working through English tongue twisters until Youngho was yanking his hair out at the sound of the third bell, reminding Minhyung again and again that the ability to repeat ‘She sells seashells by the seashore’ was far from a measurement of one’s ability to comprehend English.

“That’s good to hear,” the First Prince sighs in relief. Youngho clutches his books and scrolls close to his chest, peeking to look at the First Prince only when he’s sure his Royal Highness was looking elsewhere. He wasn’t sure if he could handle staring into the eyes of the First Prince. “I would like him to be proficient in the language by his birthday ceremony, Scholar, if that is possible.”

“Yes, your Royal Highness,” Youngho answers. It is another bout of silence and Youngho wonders why the First Prince isn’t the prince he’s set to teach, since he was bound to be appointed Crown Prince, and then subsequently, Emperor. By right, the First Prince should be placed at a higher priority as compared to the rest of the princes. Youngho wonders if he’s allowed to ask, not quite knowing the boundaries set between him and the First Prince,

“If I may ask, your Royal Highness,” Youngho says slowly, giving the First Prince enough time to refuse. He continues when his inquiry is not met with rejection, “Why am I not tutoring you? I mean – I have been told that you are competent, but as the heir of the throne, you – ”

“That has yet to be unveiled, Scholar,” the First Prince bristles, and Youngho apologises immediately. The First Prince sighs, “I am well-versed in the basics, but perhaps it would do me some good to receive some lessons as well.”

Youngho lets a pregnant pause pass between them before he understands, “I would be honoured to be your tutor, your Royal Highness.”

The First Prince stops his stride to examine a white flower blooming in the bushes of dark leaves, “That sounds lovely.” Youngho has to stop the shiver running up his spine when the First Prince straightens, turning to stare right at Youngho, eyes unwavering, “I hear that you tutor my brothers through the first four days of seven?”

Youngho thinks he’s never seen lips as nicely shaped as the First Prince’s, “Yes.” He clears his throat, “If your Royal Highness is willing, I am able to join you for evening on the fifth days of seven.”

“That is fine, Scholar,” the First Prince resumes his gait, and Youngho feels a surge of adrenaline course through his veins.

“Is there anything you would prefer to begin with, you Royal Highness?” He asks excitedly, mind whirling at the idea of having yet someone new to meet with. The Prince Royal, no doubt.

The First Prince is quiet, “Nothing comes to mind, but I will have you summoned the day after tomorrow.”

Youngho realises then, a beat too late, that they have arrived at the First Prince’s quarters, a building Youngho has never seen before, and a courtyard five times the size of the one outside the valets’ quarters.

It is obviously different than the other quarters Youngho has visited, even at first glance. Most of them had more designs on the paper walls and wooden columns, but the First Prince’s quarters was completely white, designs a bare minimum.

Should I say goodbye? Youngho thinks, watching carefully as the First Prince seems to be deep in contemplation, looking over Youngho’s shoulder.

“Thank you for the company, Youngho” the First Prince murmurs, leaning so close that Youngho does all he can to keep still.

He would have kneeled if his legs were working, and Youngho stammers, “I – uh – the – ha – pleasure is mine, your Royal Highness.”

The First Prince appears amused, just a slight lift of his expression, but he does not seem to take insult to Youngho’s lack of manners, and he leaves, the flurry of his valets and handmaidens following suit, brushing past Youngho’s stoned self. Valet Jung pats him on the back before pointing out the general direction of the valets’ quarters, rushing into the First Prince’s quarters as well.

(His dreams that night are haunted of a boy with white hair and blue eyes.)

 

Everyone in both the valets’ and handmaidens’ quarters are annoyed with Youngho by the evening of the fifth day. Nervous about his first lesson with the First Prince, Youngho has spared not a soul about his lesson plan, asking again and again and again for someone to listen to him as he went through what he wanted to share with the First Prince (authors, concepts, things many people cared very little about). Even Sehun was frustrated with his endless questions, choosing instead to help Valet Kim Jongin with the boring task of separating décor embellishments. Handmaiden Yoo was no different, shooing Youngho away from the handmaidens’ kitchen for he was causing a stir with his presence.

First lessons with the other princes were never tough to plan, but this was the First Prince, and Youngho is nothing but a bundle of nerves when Valet Jung is at his room, sent by his Royal Highness to have Youngho summoned.

The walk to the First Prince’s quarters is silent, if not for Youngho asking Valet Jung how his day went, to which a curt Fine was the given response. The route back is somewhat familiar, but not enough for Youngho to ever find his way back without a guide. When Valet Jung leads him through the halls, Youngho lets his curiosity better him and he peers into one of the dimly lit rooms, face flushing when he sees two handmaidens expertly changing the royal-looking sheets of the First Prince’s bed.

“His Royal Highness does not appreciate the nosy,” Valet Jung says under his breath, pulling Youngho by the sleeve to steer him away.

“Sorry,” Youngho mumbles, embarrassed at having been caught, but he knows Valet Jung, on some level, was just looking out for him. “Is the First Prince waiting for me?”

“Yes,” Valet Jung says, stopping outside a double doored room with green and blue adornments. “His Royal Highness is expecting your arrival.”

With a nod, Valet Jung knocks twice on the door,

“You may enter.”

The room, as it turns out, is the First Prince’s study. It is fairly large, rows and rows of books on the far wall, and a grand, dark-wood table set in the middle of the chamber. In a chair is where the First Prince is awaiting Youngho, a gentle smile on his face.

Youngho’s heart jumps to this throat when Valet Jung excuses himself, leaving him alone in the presence of the First Prince.

Under better lighting, Youngho is yet again startled by the First Prince’s beauty, bowing to his waist before he approaches.

“Good evening, your Royal Highness,” Youngho tries his best not to mumble. The First Prince hums in acknowledgement, gesturing for Youngho to take the seat across him. Being Youngho, he fumbles with his books and scrolls, and they clatter onto the expensive looking table with a series of resounding clangs. Youngho squeezes his eyes shut, shoulders flying up and over his ears until the last echo dies out, mumbling, “Sorry.”

“It is fine,” the First Prince picks up one of the bounded books, flipping through it with expertise. “Ah,” his expression is apologetic, “I have read this before, from the Royal Library, yes?”

Youngho panics, because of course he has read everything in the Royal Library, “I am sorry, your Royal Highness, I – ”

“When we are in private,” the First Prince interjects with a soft voice, placing the book back onto the desk. “You may refer to me by my name. I would feel burdened if you kept referring to me otherwise.”

In all his time at the Royal Palace, Youngho has never felt quite as terrified as he feels right at this moment, “Er, your name?”

The First Prince rises from his seat and Youngho takes a step back, bumping noisily into the chair, “You know not my name?”

Youngho wishes he had asked Minhyung, “Er. No, your Royal Highness.”

The First Prince is silent, “Lee Taeyong, Scholar.”

“Taeyong?” Youngho parrots, nearly driving a stake through his heart when he realises that he has just called the First Prince by his birth name with no warning.

The First Prince, however, seems not at all bothered by it, holding onto Youngho’s gaze, “Yes. And you will do well to remember it.”

“Of course, your Roya – ha,” Youngho bites on his lip, “I mean, Taeyong?”

“Much better,” Taeyong nods. “Thank you.”

Youngho watches as the First Pri – as Taeyong turns away from the table, heading towards the doors instead,

“I am well proficient in reading,” he says, pulling the door open. “I would much prefer to practice my elocution, Youngho, if that’s not too much to ask.”

At that, Youngho nods jerkily, following as Taeyong steps into his courtyard. He glances around the estate, but Youngho finds not valets nor handmaidens watching them, not even Valet Jung, but a shift in the shadows is enough for Youngho to know that the Secret Guard is still around.

“Tell me about yourself,” Taeyong says, starting again to admire the flowers, always white, Youngho notices. “In English, and it shall be a practice for my aural skills as well.”

And so, Youngho does.

He tells Taeyong about how he was sent over with his parents when he was only ten-and-two, from a land far away where the language of English was spoken, which explained his proficiency. About how they lived a simple life until he was ten-and-five, and in the cold months of that last year, Winter took his parents, who welcomed them like an old friend, easily, silently. It is a story that no longer makes him cry nor does it make him particularly sad, but he still appreciates it when Taeyong rests a hand on his elbow, light but comforting, eyes expressing his condolences. He moves on to share that he was then transferred to an adoption house, run by kind Matron Jung, and he was fine there until he was chosen by the Emperor to continue his life here at the Royal Palace, serving with what he can.

Taeyong says nothing about that, listening wholeheartedly as Youngho explains in simple English.

He shares that his days now at the Royal Palace are fun and fulfilling, especially since he gets to pass on what limited knowledge he has, that he never thought he would be able to serve in the Royal Palace.

Youngho mimics when Taeyong takes a seat by the marble bench, making sure to leave an appropriate amount of space between them. Taeyong hedges for him to go on, and Youngho, having run out of stories, tells Taeyong about how he once brought a cat home, but his mother was deathly allergic, so he had to sorrowfully return it to the wild. He shares that he never saw the cat again, but he still left out a bowl of water for if it were to ever return, a child-like innocence.

He conjures a slew of stories from his childhood, and he doesn’t stop because Taeyong is looking at him with such importance that has his heart doing jumping jacks.

It is after a story of how he once got stuck in a well, no thanks to Sehun, that has Taeyong laughing, pearl-white teeth finally revealed to Youngho in an endearing smile. Youngho inhales sharply, admiring the way Taeyong’s skin shone even under the moonlight, and it’s as if he is back in the unknown courtyard where they'd first met.

“I have to prepare for the night,” Taeyong says quietly, and Youngho lets himself believe that there is a tinge of regret in his voice, that he was equally woeful at their need to part. “But I will see you again soon, Youngho.”

Youngho stands when Taeyong does, “And I will be available whenever you shall need me to be.”

Again, Youngho lets himself believe that there is a tinge of pink colouring Taeyong’s cheeks, murmuring a sweet Goodnight, Youngho before ducking back into his quarters.

Youngho takes a moment to calm his heart before finding his way back to his own room, unsure of how to decode the way his heart was hammering in his chest.

x

 

Time is not a fixed construct in the Royal Palace. Minutes bleed into hours, and into days, and weeks, months, and Youngho finds himself falling in love with the First Prince of Cheongdam.

After their first lesson, which consisted mostly of Youngho talking, he finds that Taeyong is far warmer than his cold appearance lets on to be. In his quarters, whenever Youngho is summoned, Taeyong is all smiles and laughs, bad jokes and horrible puns, all of which Youngho takes with a full heart. Taeyong, as expected, prefers listening to Youngho’s stories instead of sharing his own, but Youngho has no problem with that, easily conjuring up tons from his childhood to keep Taeyong entertained for hours on end.

He finds himself falling in love with the way Taeyong laughed, what would he not give in his life to see the First Prince laugh without care, like he did when it was just them two in the courtyard, space between them dwindling with every meeting. Knees knocked before their elbows did, and Youngho was over the moon the first time Taeyong rested his cheek on Youngho’s shoulder, a common act for them by now.

He finds himself falling in love with the way they bantered back and forth playfully in front of the other valets and handmaidens, all of them accepting and encouraging of their unlabelled relationship. It’s afternoons of handholding as Taeyong drags him around to introduce Youngho to his favourite flowers or his favourite paintings hung in the lounge of his quarters. The first time it happened, Youngho expected Taeyong to pull away after his introduction to a white flower Youngho can’t remember the name off (his mind was too focused on Taeyong’s palm against his), but he didn’t and Youngho takes the bold step of lacing their fingers together, another common act for them now.

He finds himself falling in love, wishing to see Taeyong every evening, wishing to be summoned, the only way he could make any sort of contact with the First Prince. Youngho waits by his room for Valet Jung (or any of Taeyong’s valets that he recognises) to bring him to the First Prince’s quarters, though he has memorised the route by now, smiling when he sees Taeyong waiting for him as well.

 

It is the first of five lessons (the ones on the fifths, not considering the other days where Youngho has been invited to accompany Taeyong for his evenings) that is cancelled, and Youngho can’t help but show his disappointment when Valet Jung tells him so. There is a royal dinner that requires Taeyong’s presence, but Youngho is still moody when he retires to his room, for he had been waiting the entire day to see Taeyong again that night.

It’s a hotpot of feelings when Valet Jung is knocking on his door later that night, insistent that Youngho hurry quick because Taeyong is urgently requesting him at his quarters. Unsteady on his feet, Youngho tugs on a robe hastily before going out into the night, following a quick-footed Valet Jung to the First Prince’s quarters. He bumps into the shorter boy when they stop outside the First Prince’s room this time, unlike the study where Youngho is always brought to.

“His Royal Highness has asked for everyone to clear the premise, should anything happen,” Valet Jung’s voice is so low that Youngho has to bend forward to hear him.

“What?” Youngho whispers back, not comprehending the current situation.

Valet Jung does not entertain his disorientation, “His Royal Highness has already bathed, and, should you need it, there is a decanter filled with oils on his night table.”

“A deca – he has – a what?” Youngho blubbers, backing away from Valet Jung, who grabs him roughly by the arm.

“Should you refuse,” Valet Jung’s tone alleviates into a more reassuring one. “No harm shall come to you. The First Prince is not one to force himself onto others,” Youngho’s brain isn’t even working at this point, “But you must be the one who tells him, for anyone else who does so will only be met with the worst of punishments. Do you understand me, Scholar?”

Youngho doesn’t. He really doesn’t, but Valet Jung looks just about as nervous as he was, so he nods, and Valet Jung takes no more than a second to throw Youngho into the lion’s den – the First Prince’s bedroom.

Shaken to the core, Youngho stays by the entrance of the room, eyes searching wildly in the dark for any sign of life. The room is lit with two candles by the bed, and Youngho spots the decanter of oils, as described. He hears the footsteps of Valet Jung scattering away, and he waits several moments more for Taeyong to acknowledge Youngho’s presence, but he doesn’t.

“Uh,” Youngho says meekly, eyes beginning to adjust to the dark, figures of the bed and other furniture starting to come into focus. “Your Royal Highness?”

The force of which Taeyong is slammed into his chest is not at all painful, but Youngho gasps anyway, shocked at the close proximity of their bodies. Taeyong’s eyes are even brighter in the dark, not even his white hair could compare. At practically no distance between them, Youngho can smell the alcohol off the First Prince, and the flush on his cheeks and his tousled hair is nothing but a sign that the First Prince is clearly inebriated.

Yes, Youngho?” Taeyong purrs, and Youngho is so, so, so, so, so close to him that he feels the Taeyong’s heartbeat thumping against his chest. “Did I scare you?”

Youngho shakes his head, “N – no, no! I was – I just – I did not expect you to, uh, appear out of thin air like that.”

“Huh,” Taeyong hums, stepping away from Youngho then, and the scholar takes the second to breathe. “Come here.”

Youngho stays rooted at his spot by the door, watching with his jaw slack as Taeyong saunters to his bed, hips swaying seductively as he slinks around the bed post. He turns around, frowning when he finds that Youngho is not on his heel.

Even through his drunkenness, Taeyong is fierce in his command, “Did I not ask you to come here?”

Youngho goes with calculated steps, afraid to make any sort of mistake, especially one Taeyong could agree to while in a state like this, “Your Royal Highness, you – ”

“I said to call me by my name, didn’t I?” Taeyong sits back onto his bed, white silk robes falling off his shoulders, exposing his chest. Youngho eats the rock in his throat, averting his eyes and thanking his pure luck that Taeyong’s robes were tied tight enough to preserve the rest.

“Taeyong,” Youngho chokes out, trying his best to ignore the way his gut flares at the thought of seeing Taeyong bare. “I do not think this is – ”

“I said to come here,” Taeyong commands harshly, spreading his legs wide. Youngho rushes forward, but he keeps his eyes glued to the floor, kneeling by the edge of the bed. He isn’t used to Taeyong acting this way; the dinner must’ve been about something of worth to have Taeyong drunk like so.

“Your Royal Highness,” Youngho closes his eyes. “You are inebriated, please.”

“I might be drunk, but I know what I want.”

Youngho looks up to find Taeyong staring impatiently down at him, completely wasted. Youngho was never sure if Taeyong was ever on the same page as he was, how could he even begin to assume so about the Prince Royal?

If there’s any chance he could take to let loose his true feelings, the time would be now, and he would so very hope that Taeyong does not remember it in the morning,

“I want you too.”

Taeyong’s eyes widen, as if he couldn’t quite believe himself, and the words don’t match his expression, “Then come here.”

Youngho rises to his feet, and Taeyong holds out his hand, his robes slipping even further, an open invitation to have Youngho join him in bed, but –

No. I can’t.

“Your Royal Highness,” Youngho grabs Taeyong gingerly by the wrist to rest his hand on the bed, sliding Taeyong’s legs close with the back of his hand, a gentleman's hand, as they call it. “I do not think this is a good idea.”

“What?” Taeyong sounds so incredibly hurt that Youngho has half the mind to jump into bed. “Why not?”

Youngho bites on his tongue, “You are inebriated and – ”

“Fine!” Taeyong snaps, anger rising unnaturally quick. He kicks Youngho on the hips, and the scholar stumbles away from the bed, more surprised than insulted. “Then leave!”

Please, Taeyong,” Youngho takes a step forward, but Taeyong is recoiling from him, turning to have his back facing Youngho, “It is not my intention to offend you – ”

“I said to leave, Scholar!”

Youngho, at a loss, does as he wishes, and he leaves.

 

x

 

“It hurts.”

“Shut up, Youngho,” Sehun seethes, flicking a bit of dough into Youngho’s face. “If anyone were to hear you, I’d be in trouble too.”

Contrary to what Sehun thinks, after he is well informed of the going ons that has been happening between Youngho and the First Prince, Youngho is not exiled for embarrassing the prince or refusing his advances. It took a few days to convince that the prince did have white hair and blue eyes, and Sehun had even raised a broom over Youngho’s head to Shut up, and stop lying! Sehun had only finally caved to listening to Youngho laments by the fourth day or so.

As Valet Jung had assured him, no harm did ever come his way.

Though, Valet Jung did not predict that Youngho would be emotionally wrecked.

Following that night, Taeyong had gone on to cancel the rest of his lessons with Youngho (indefinitely, as he’s so informed by young Valet Park) and he hasn’t been summoned since then. There was no other way to get in contact with Taeyong, not when even the valets and handmaidens under him were avoiding Youngho as well.

At first, it confused Youngho. He didn’t know Taeyong long enough to have such emotions towards the prince, but it can only be explained that he was simply in love.

It has been the longest Youngho has ever gone without seeing Taeyong since their first lesson together, and

“It hurts, Sehun,” Youngho groans, thunking his head against the chopping board Sehun was working on. “I miss him.”

“Then go talk to him!” Sehun chastises, sweeping at Youngho’s head to have him sit up. “You know where he lives, just go and – ”

“And do what,” Youngho snorts, slumping against the table again. “Profess my love for him while everyone listens?”

Sehun sighs loudly, shrugging, “I don’t know! What if you catch him on one of his walks? What about then?”

“He has guards around him, Sehun,” Youngho says flatly. “I don’t think I’d make it even an arm’s length to him.”

“Honestly,” Sehun sniffs primly. “If you say that he’s into you as much as you are into him, don’t you think he’d give them a notice not to behead you or something?”

Youngho has little time to retort because young Valet Park is running through the kitchens, “The First Prince is to grace the courtyard behind the buildings. Please act accordingly!”

Sehun shrugs again, leaving his workstation, “What are you going to do?”

 

It takes a lot of effort to not get caught by any of Taeyong’s valets nor handmaidens, what with his long limbs sticking out everywhere, though he is suspicious that Valet Kim had seemed to have spotted him trying to hide between the bushes, but turned away at the last second. He waits until Taeyong is close by, Valet Jung on his right, his personal Royal Guard Choi on his left. The sword in Royal Guard Choi’s hand gleams under the sun, and Youngho is near scared to death when he jumps from his spot, pretending to stumble through the bushes,

“Your Royal Highness,” he recites with his head bowed low, as much as he wished to indulge in soaking, once again, in the comfort of Taeyong’s eyes. “Forgive my intrusion, I was unaware that you were gracing this courtyard.”

Royal Guard Choi has his sword lifted up high, uncomfortably close to Youngho’s neck, “What should I do with the scholar, your Royal Highness?”

Youngho fears for his life until Taeyong’s voice, cool, slices the tension in the air, “Leave us.”

Immediately, the barrage of valets and handmaidens (and Royal Guard Choi) is diminished, and Taeyong brushes past Youngho without a word. Thinking on his feet, Youngho follows him until they reach a gazebo near the Royal Lake. From where he’s standing, Youngho can make out the huddle of valets and handmaidens looking on curiously, but it is clear that they are well out of earshot.

Youngho fights the urge to take Taeyong by the hand, as they have done so countless of times.

Taeyong sits daintily on one of the beams, slowly adjusting his robes. Youngho remains standing, keeping his hands by his sides, a form of respect.

“My apologies, Scholar Seo,” the formality is a kick to Youngho’s gut. “For having agonised you over the past weeks for my actions. I was inebriated and Valet Jung has dutifully informed my actions,” he goes on. “I understand it must be uncomfortable for you, now that you are aware of my preferences.”

What?

“No, Taeyong – ” Youngho skitters to a stop when Taeyong looks up to frown at him, eyes flashing. “I mean, your Royal Highness,” he corrects quickly. “You have mistaken,” he takes a tentative step closer, and Taeyong’s lips harden into a tight line. “I am not uncomfortable at all. I – I just wished not to have you act while, forgive me, inebriated, lest something happens you might regret.”

Youngho thinks he’s sure to get properly whacked when Taeyong shakes his head, “I do not remember what happened in my bedroom, Scholar.” Youngho can feel his face burn at the thought of Taeyong in the silk robe, trying to charm Youngho into bed with him. “I am unclear as to what you’re speaking of.”

Youngho blanks. Did he want Youngho to explain what happened that night? Was it not enough that it simply happened?

Taeyong remains expectant, and Youngho edges closer. He sees the Royal Guard come from the bushes, but Taeyong lifts a hand to still them.

“You summoned me,” Youngho says slowly. “And, uh, you said you, uh – er – I – ”

“Out with it, Scholar,” Taeyong bites, looking more worried than anything.

“You said you wanted me,” Youngho answers quickly.

With a sharp inhale, Taeyong is on his feet the next instant, pushing past Youngho. Afraid that he will never again get another chance with the First Prince, Youngho grabs him by the wrist, catching Taeyong with a loud yelp.

“Scholar!” Taeyong fumes, twisting in Youngho’s hold. “Unhand me this instant or – ”

“I said I wanted you too, Taeyong,” Youngho says softly, aware of the number of valets and handmaidens charging at them, seeing as Youngho was manhandling their prince. He thinks he could kiss Taeyong in this instant, lips parted and eyes glazed, if there weren’t so many people staring at them. He takes a deep breath, head swimming at the flowery scent Taeyong seemed to always have on him. “You forgot,” Youngho continues quickly, ignoring the Valet Jung’s shouts at the Royal Guard to Stand down! (Sehun was right.) “You forgot, but I said I wanted you too. I like you, Taeyong, I really like you.”

I might even be in love with you.

At his confession, Youngho lets Taeyong go, and he immediately drops to his knees, readily anticipating the butt of the sword that Royal Guard Choi has to the back of his neck. He waits to hear Taeyong to make his next order, but the answer doesn’t come, and Taeyong leaves the gazebo without another word. By the time Valet Jung is ordering Royal Guard Choi to resheath his sword and Youngho has regained his freedom to look up, Taeyong is already halfway across the courtyard, robes billowing behind him.

Before Youngho can let the pain take over, Valet Jung is pulling him up be the back of his robes,

“His Royal Highness will be summoning you tonight, Youngho, a fair warning.”

In that itself, Youngho knows immediately it’s a message from Taeyong, because Jaehyun would never risk going behind the prince’s back.

  

As expected and to Sehun’s chagrin, Youngho spends the rest of the day freaking out. Unlike the rest of the concubines or consorts (is that what Youngho was now?), Youngho has never received formal education on the subject matter, but he knew it was going to hurt, if they were even going that far. Though the Royal Library is no help to a situation like theirs, it does give Youngho enough insight when it came to concerns of preparation.

It feels a lot like Youngho was studying for the Imperial Exam, though heavy with far more negative repercussions if he were to do anything wrong. He showers for a long time before he is summoned, until the hot water turns cold, and the wonky tap is slowly close to falling out. When Jaehyun comes to fetch him several hours after dinner, Youngho is about as prepared as he is ever going to be in his life.

“Again,” Jaehyun says, stopping them just outside Taeyong’s room, déjà vu hitting Youngho like a bull with sharpened horns. “No one is on the premise. There is oil on the table, and his Royal Highness is in his bathroom, anticipating your arrival. Understood?”

Youngho nods jerkily, feeling ten times underprepared.

Before he leaves, Jaehyun gives Youngho’s shoulder a squeeze, and he thinks Jaehyun’s about to be encouraging when, “Do not hurt him again, Youngho. If you have any doubts, I suggest you not enter this room.”

Youngho briefly comes to realisation that Jaehyun was Taeyong’s friend first more than anything. Voice hoarse, he mumbles, “I don’t have any doubts.”

“Good,” Jaehyun straightens, leaving Youngho on his own, jogging across the courtyard, and off the First Prince’s quarters.

Youngho pulls the door open quietly, greeted by a sight different from the one weeks before. It wasn’t as nearly as bright as it could be in the day, but it was definitely more than just two candles. The lamp on the night stand was turned on as well, and Youngho can see the room clearly now, bed, daybed, another row of bookshelves, and Taeyong certainly not in it.

“Your Royal Highness?” Youngho calls out, shutting the door lightly behind him. He then registers the sound of water running, strong and unlike the ones Youngho has ever had the chance to use.

“In a moment,” is Taeyong’s response, and Youngho contemplates getting on his knees. It’s something he has not done in weeks, but given what has happened between them, he is no longer sure of where he stood when it came with to the First Prince. His reflection is halted when Taeyong emerges from his bathroom, yet again, dressed in that striking silk robe, dulled against his alabaster skin, against his hair.

Too late to fold into a proper bow, Youngho settles with one to the waist, “Your Royal Highness.”

“Be at ease,” Taeyong says, footsteps light as he approaches Youngho, stopping only when they’re an arm’s length apart. Youngho licks his lips nervously, and he hopes Taeyong can’t hear the way his heart is pounding. “Tell me what happened that night.”

Again? Youngho’s throat dries up in an instant, but he recounts the night’s events easily, having never stopped thinking about it, “I got here, because Jaehyu – I mean, Valet Jung called for me, and you – ” he whispers, afraid to be overheard, “ – you said you wanted me.”

Taeyong does not speak, expression one void of any.

“And I – I said I wanted you too,” Youngho looks to the ground, unable to hold Taeyong’s gaze. “But I didn’t know if you wanted me because you were dru – inebriated, your Royal Highness.”

Taeyong has yet to speak, and Youngho is certain that the First Prince is seconds away from calling for his head to be had.

Bowing again, Youngho apologises, best ignoring the sting in his heart, “I will take my leave – ”

“I was inebriated, but you were not, were you?”

Youngho keeps his eyes trained to the ground, ears aflame, “No, I was not, your Royal Highness.”

“Are you with a clear head now?”

Youngho is having trouble taking breaths, “Yes, your Roy – ”

“And you still want me?”

Youngho is resolute,

“Yes.”

Taeyong closes the space between them, feet coming into Youngho’s view, holding a hand out to Youngho, just as he did that night, “I… will not tolerate it if you speak such words, only to push me away again, Youngho.”

With a trembling hand, Youngho takes Taeyong’s, lifting his head slowly to find Taeyong looking at him intently, façade thrown into the wind, replaced with one full of apprehension. He doesn’t know? Youngho thinks. Doesn’t he know that I would say yes?

“If you would let me…” Youngho laces their fingers together, and it feels like he’s coming home. He caresses Taeyong’s cheek lightly, breathing shakily when Taeyong’s eyes flutter shut. “Would you let me kiss you?”

Taeyong nods, keeping his eyes closed. Youngho holds him still, dipping forward to kiss Taeyong for the very first time. At the touch of their lips, Taeyong squeezes Youngho’s hand, other finding its way to Youngho’s waist, pinching lightly. He keeps his lips firm against Youngho’s, and it’s warm and plush. Youngho moves his lips, tentative, smiling when he hears Taeyong lose his breath. Under his palm, Taeyong’s cheek is smooth and he takes pleasure in dragging his thumb across the highs of it, like velvet under the pads of his fingers.

A sign of encouragement, Taeyong presses harder into Youngho’s waist, and a tongue darts out to swipe at Youngho’s lips. Youngho lets slip a small groan of approval at that, but the warmth around him is gone in the next beat.

Taeyong leans away, pupils dilating quickly, chest heaving.

“Wha – ?” Youngho tries, but Taeyong is pulling him towards the bed gently, all the while holding Youngho’s hand.

Oh. Oh.

Youngho stumbles on the hardwood floors and Taeyong cracks the smallest smile, visibly entertained by Youngho’s nervousness.

“Only the trusted will know,” Taeyong reassures quietly, climbing onto his bed. The sheets barely make a sound, and Youngho follows Taeyong onto the bed, taking a moment to admire the silk under his hands; finer than any cloth Youngho’s ever touched. “Youngho?”

Trust Youngho to be admiring bedsheets when Taeyong is lying in bed, waiting for him, “I don’t really care if anyone finds out, your Royal Highness.”

Taeyong startles at that, getting on his knees and pushing Youngho to sit back on his heels as well. His hands are small, fingers thin, and they are deft at disrobing Youngho. Casting them aside, Taeyong rests his palms on Youngho’s bare chest, and he can only moan at the touch. Youngho sits still, letting Taeyong runs his hands along the length of his torso, studying his body so carefully Youngho might as well be on a healer’s table.

Eager to touch Taeyong too, Youngho swallows, “Can I – ”

Taeyong takes one of Youngho’s clenched fists, guiding him to the ribbon of his robe, “You have my permission. Do not ask me again.”

The silk on Taeyong’s body near matches the silk under Youngho’s knees, but it’s no match for the skin revealed when Youngho tenderly pulls the robe apart, heat coiling in his gut when it falls easily off Taeyong’s shoulders. The prince is watching him now, as if he were studying Youngho’s every reaction. Youngho does best not to disappoint, tilting Taeyong to lie back onto an abundance of feather pillows.

Silently, he scoots upwards to slide an arm under Taeyong’s neck, holding the other close as he lovingly trails a hand down Taeyong’s sternum, stroking down his chest, then his abdomen. Youngho takes his time, committing every single dip and curve of Taeyong’s body to memory before starting all over again. Taeyong lets him, watching him closely as he does, dragging the heel of his left leg against the back of Youngho’s right.

“You are beautiful,” Youngho whispers, catching Taeyong’s lips between his again for a chaste kiss.

That seems to stun Taeyong, “You don’t think I look scary?”

“Scary?” Youngho echoes, stilling in his endeavours to look Taeyong in the eyes. Blue eyes, white hair. A combination Youngho can only associate with beauty, or maybe Taeyong was just beautiful to him, his unrestrained, gawky laugh and awful humour were on all counts of beautiful, or maybe Youngho was just wonderfully smitten. “You are anything but.”

Taeyong’s hands are on his cheeks, pulling him forward for a kiss, and Youngho gives it to him.

“My hair…” Taeyong murmurs, hiding his face in the crook of Youngho’s neck. “My eyes… They’re scary, are they not?”

Youngho has never thought Taeyong to look scary, of all things. Sure, he was petrified when they’d first met in the courtyard, but that was an exception; he was shirtless and it was really just the dark that scared Youngho. He wills the bewilderment away in favour of answering Taeyong, “Not to me, your Royal Highness.”

Taeyong presses himself closer to Youngho, sighing when Youngho’s hand brushes across his chest, “My name, Youngho.”

Running his fingers through Taeyong’s hair, softer than it looks, “I said you’re beautiful, Taeyong.”

Taeyong kisses him then, fervently, pushing his tongue into Youngho’s mouth, and Youngho opens up with a moan, closing his eyes as Taeyong licks into him, tasting a lot like peppermint. Youngho moves his left hand from under Taeyong’s neck to curl around the curve of his waist instead, and Taeyong shifts until he’s nestled comfortably.

When the kisses grow hotter, Taeyong’s hips pushing against Youngho’s, Youngho breaks their kiss to ask,

“Is this your first time?”

He doesn’t expect Taeyong to reply with such candour, blue peeking from under his lids, “Yes. I have only… touched myself.”

Youngho lets himself be relieved before realising that they’re both going into this blind. Puffing out his chest in false bravado, “Let me take care of you.”

Just as he turns to reach for the decanter on the table, Taeyong’s small hands are on his shoulders, turning him back around, “Have you had anyone else before?”

Youngho realises then that Taeyong’s grip is a little too tight, so he answers honestly, “No.” To Taeyong’s narrowed eyes, he continues, “But I spent the entire day in the restriction section of the Royal Library.”

“And what did you find there?” Taeyong raises a brow, starting to grin up at Youngho.

I think I’m in love. “I found enough,” Youngho settles, kissing Taeyong languidly, hoping to ease him.

It does, and Taeyong lets him move far away enough to oil his three of his fingers on his right hand, returning to Taeyong’s side and accepting the kiss Taeyong presses to his lips. Automatic, Taeyong hooks his left leg over Youngho’s hips, opening himself up to welcome Youngho’s fingers.

Carefully, Youngho holds Taeyong steady with his left arm still around Taeyong’s waist, right hand slowly running towards and over Taeyong’s entrance.

Aah,” Taeyong jolts, tucking his face against the underside of Youngho’s jaw, and Youngho hisses when Taeyong’s brushes against his, the friction, heaven.

“Are you okay?” Youngho breathes, pressing a kiss to Taeyong’s crown. The prince nods, holding onto Youngho’s shoulders like a lifeline. Youngho continues until it’s warm under his finger, and Taeyong is already panting heavily into his collarbone. “Ready?”

Yes, Youngho,” Taeyong grits, sounding impatient. Youngho bites back a laugh, pushing into Taeyong at a painfully slow pace. Taeyong tenses up immediately, and Youngho stops, waiting for him to adjust around the finger. Taeyong nods again, hair rubbing against Youngho’s chin, and he slides his finger all the way in.

It takes more than just several breaths. Youngho works Taeyong slow, pushing his hips against Taeyong’s to distract him of the pain. Taeyong takes most of the bait, bucking into Youngho by the time he’s done stretching Taeyong out to two fingers, slick with oil.

When Youngho introduces his third finger, curling deep in Taeyong, it has him moaning to the high heavens. Youngho doesn’t even care if they’re heard, and he marvels at the way a roll of shudders wreck Taeyong’s frame, not knowing if he should push down into Youngho’s fingers, or up against Youngho’s dick.

Youngho,” Taeyong gasps, releasing his grip on Youngho’s shoulders to wrap his arms around Youngho’s neck, a death grip. His right leg hooks with Youngho’s left, and he slams their bodies flush. Youngho groans loudly, the smooth, gratifying slide of their dicks leaving him bare of any coherency. Affirmed that Taeyong’s stretched out enough by now, Youngho picks up his pace, unfurling his fingers to press into Taeyong’s walls, rationed gasps morphing into high whines. He repeats the motion, and pre-ejaculate leaks from Taeyong. Youngho feels it on his torso, wet and warm and –

Taeyong cries out in ecstasy, body seizing as he tightens his hold around Youngho. Youngho nearly finishes at the reaction, Taeyong’s lips on his ear, whimpering as he quivers through his orgasm.

“You,” Taeyong sniffles only a minute later, and Youngho notices then that he’s crying. “You, you.”

“Taeyong, wha – ” Youngho pulls his fingers out of Taeyong slowly, but Taeyong is rushing to climb over Youngho to reach for the decanter, completely disregarding his dirty torso. There really isn’t much time to think when Taeyong is sitting on his lap, both his hands on Youngho’s hard-on, stroking him hard and quick. Youngho forgets about everything in the moment, and he’s near the end when Taeyong leaps off him, slumping back onto the mess of throw pillows.

Painfully hard and disorientated, Youngho doesn’t get it until Taeyong is yanking him by the arms for Youngho to hover over him. He lets Taeyong recover, for surely the prince had no time to earlier, and Youngho presses gentle kisses to Taeyong’s nose, cheeks and lips, asking,

“Are you sure?”

Taeyong nods, voice hoarse with tension, “You can keep going.”

As per the novella Youngho had come across earlier that afternoon, he reaches to rest a pillow under the small of Taeyong’s back, and another under Taeyong’s neck. He reaches to slick himself with more oil, wanting it to hurt as little as possible. Taeyong watches with fervent attention, running his hands along his bedsheets, waiting for Youngho to ready him.

“Okay,” Youngho mutters, mostly to himself, lifting Taeyong’s legs gently. He hides a smile when Taeyong wraps his legs around Youngho’s hips naturally. Taking deep breaths, Youngho staves off his orgasm as he enters Taeyong, hot, the glide smoother than he’d expected.

Taeyong wheezes, head lolling back as Youngho grabs him by the hips, pushing in slow. He grabs the sheets, fingers twisting into them tight. Youngho stops, only halfway in, watching Taeyong with bated breath, moving again when he nods, shutting his eyes. Youngho massages circles to Taeyong’s rim as he fills him to the hilt, allotting most of his brain power not to finish off right this instant.

Youngho touches Taeyong then, twisting his hand over Taeyong like he would do to himself, and it has Taeyong hardening in the moments after, heaving at Youngho’s touch.

“Enough, enough,” Taeyong gasps, swatting Youngho’s hand away. He rolls his hips against Youngho and they moan together. Wordlessly, Taeyong urges Youngho to move, exhaling heavily when Youngho does.

Youngho is amazed at his own patience, and he fucks Taeyong slow and sensual, rocking his hips languidly. Taeyong chants his name like a mantra, Youngho, yes, yes, heavens, Youngho, and said scholar bends to swallow his moans.

It’s a difficult position, but Youngho manages, and it’s barely several thrusts later that he feels his orgasm creep up on him once again. It must be showing, because Taeyong pulls away to moan,

In me, Youngho,” he pants.

Youngho comes, coating Taeyong’s insides with his load, and Taeyong does as well, for the second time that night. He rides it out until he comes down from it, falling over onto Taeyong with a groan. A corner of his mind expects Taeyong to command for him to get off, but he’s pleasantly surprised when Taeyong laughs instead, hugging Youngho close. Youngho moves until they’re lying on their sides, arms and legs intertwined so intimately. He presses their foreheads together, giving Taeyong a kiss and then taking more. They like that for a while more, until the stickiness on Youngho’s torso is itching and unbearable.

With a promise to return, Youngho slips from the bed to hurry into the bathroom.

He is greeted by cotton towels, something Youngho’s never had the luxury of using (nor has he used such a working tap), and he cleans himself off quickly before returning to Taeyong’s side bearing another, dampened with warm water. He cleans Taeyong’s swollen entrance, and Taeyong lets him, laying back comfortably as Youngho finishes up with wiping his torso clean as well. He leaves again to leave the dirty towel in the woven hamper by the bathtub.

When he returns, Taeyong has kicked the silk throw to the ground, revealing a white quilt that he’s already tucked under. Youngho smiles when Taeyong beckons him back to bed, holding out the covers for Youngho to slip into.

He huddles close, and Taeyong finds his way into Youngho’s arms again, resting his cheek on Youngho’s chest.

“Can I ask you something?” Youngho mumbles quietly, unsure if Taeyong was still awake. He plays with Taeyong’s hair fondly, enjoying the way it slips through his fingers.

“Hmm?” Taeyong yawns, burrowing himself further into Youngho, a warm and safe embrace.

“Not that I dislike it,” Youngho says carefully, remembering how apprehensive Taeyong was earlier. “I love it, actually, but why is your hair white?”

“You love it?” Taeyong asks softly. Youngho nods, and he feels Taeyong’s lips pressed against his collarbones. “What about my eyes?”

“I love them too,” Youngho answers truthfully. They never bothered Youngho at all. (What did bother Youngho was Taeyong’s penchant of having Youngho never bump into any flowers, which was difficult for a boy of his height, but that was a different thing.)

“It has been like this since I was a baby,” Taeyong answers tiredly but sincerely. Youngho cards his fingers through Taeyong’s hair. “The Royal Healers tried to fix me, but nothing worked.”

Youngho tilts far enough to kiss Taeyong sweet, “There is nothing to be fixed. You are beautiful as you are.”

They spend the rest of the night in each other’s arms, not a care for who was to find them the next morning.

   

x

 

It’s clockwork, how Youngho now spends his afternoons and evenings in the First Prince’s quarters, where they share a bed (oftentimes just for hugs and kisses), where they share meals, where they share stories, knowing more about Taeyong as Youngho has always wanted to.

He learns very quickly that Taeyong always has the courtyards cleared out before his arrival, for he couldn’t bear the inquisitive stares and gossips that followed wherever he went. Most of the palace help was already accustomed to his look and demeanour, but since the preparation of the Crown Prince’s Revealment Ceremony, there has been more hired help that have never seen Taeyong (both Youngho and Sehun alike). Youngho thinks that’s the most ridiculous things he’s ever heard, because his looks are nothing to be afraid of, and Taeyong’s the most beautiful person he’s ever seen. When he says just that, Taeyong’s only reply is a practised,

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

Apart from more serious topics, Youngho also learns that Taeyong is a whizz in chess, that no one under him has ever beat him in a fair game. Though Jaehyun had come fairly close once, only to lose while having his back turned on his king. Taeyong is also picky with food, cucumbers and pickles were completely removed from his personal kitchen, and the smell of cheese made him nauseous. Youngho learns that out of all the princes, Taeyong likes Minhyung the best, smiling tenderly when Youngho reveals that he thought the same too.

Speaking of whom, is turning ten-and-eight in a few days.

As it is soon the eighth month of the year with Minhyung’s birthday steadily approaching, Taeyong is out of his quarters for most of his day hours, busy with royal meetings or private matters. Youngho didn’t mind much particularly; he would wait for Taeyong to summon him when the prince was done with his work, Youngho never probed on what they were about. Or, if he woke to a bed without Taeyong, he would spend the day with the free valets (he taught them some English) and handmaidens (they thought him to play chess) instead, waiting for Taeyong to return.

 

To describe Minhyung’s birthday ceremony as simply extravagant, would be a terrible understatement.

The West Hall is decorated to the nines with gold and red banners, covering the ceilings, while the floors are filled with only the freshest flowers the season can provide. A long table spread across the ceremonial hall has platters piled high with dishes fit for all of the five princes, and then some. Royalties from neighbouring states are invited, and the group of Minhyung’s friends that he has made while out in the village are there too, Youngho goes over to greet them politely, shy when they complain about how much time Minhyung spends gushing on and on about his favourite tutor.

Royal Advisor Kim has provided Youngho a set of new robes (emerald green), fit for when he attends the birthday ceremony. He was only invited because Minhyung wanted his favourite tutor to be present, and Youngho was not one to refuse. Most of the time Youngho spends during the ceremony is with the valets and handmaidens, poking fun at how his robes seem to never end (they were too long, Royal Advisor Kim).

His attention is only grappled when he spots the arrival of Jaehyun, and following, the five princes. Taeyong leads the them up to the raised platform, taking the seat to the right of where the Emperor is to dine at. Youngho’s legs unwittingly carry them towards the front (as forward as he can go without overstepping the presence of other higher royals), until he’s close enough for everything to come into clarity.

From where he’s standing, Youngho can make out the blue gems and white crystals so intricately woven into Taeyong’s hair, certainly bringing all attention to him. People from around Youngho are murmuring of his beauty, revelling in the way the light catches even if Taeyong so much as breathed.

Youngho feels a possessive pride glow in him that he promptly snubs shut.

They are graced then, by the Emperor’s presence, but Youngho is barely paying attention to his grand speech, for Taeyong has found him in the crowd, sending a shy smile Youngho’s way. Youngho’s heart surges, because Taeyong is looking at him! He wonders if he should wave, but decides against it when Taeyong looks away, diverting his attention to Emperor Lee and his speech of congratulations to Minhyung.

After the speech, the princes roam about the ceremonial hall, and Youngho understands when Taeyong stays away from the corner he’s hiding out yet, for what reason could a prince have to meet with a scholar? Instead, he waits patiently for the event to end, rushing back to his room to find young Valet Park already there, that the First Prince requires his presence in his quarters once again.

 

Where Youngho finds himself in the next half hour is in Taeyong’s bath, with Taeyong settled between his legs, back pressed to Youngho’s chest. The water is warm, and it helps to alleviate a bit of the tension in Youngho’s shoulders while he tries to get all of the gem and crystals out of Taeyong’s hair.

He finds it hard to believe that he was summoned just to take a bath with the prince, but he’ll take whatever he can get.

“This must have taken ages,” Youngho complains without much objection, carefully unravelling a particularly tightly knotted crystal.

“It did,” Taeyong sighs, lax on Youngho’s chest, and him speaking is the only sign that he hasn’t fallen asleep. “Handmaiden Kim had a fun time planting them in there. Wasn’t sure if I liked it.”

“Why not?” Youngho murmurs, silently celebrating his victory when he manages to get another out without yanking on Taeyong’s hair. “It makes you look absolutely stunning.”

“Stop,” Taeyong squirms. Youngho tuts when he moves, making him lose hold of a small gem. “You’re embarrassing me.”

“It’s just the both of us here,” Youngho says quietly, bringing his knees up to push Taeyong closer to his chest.

“Still,” Taeyong mutters, but the redness colouring his ears say something else.

Youngho drops his voice low, “You’re the only person the entire room was looking at tonight.”

Taeyong snorts, fingertips skimming the water, causing a wave of ripples, “Minhyung will be sad to hear that.”

“Let me rephrase then,” Youngho clears his throat, and Taeyong props himself up, hand splayed across his chest to look Youngho in the eyes. His breath catches at the sight of Taeyong, still so easily taking his breath away no matter how many nights Youngho has spent watching him sleep, “You were the only person I was looking at tonight.”

Taeyong rewards him with a kiss, open-mouthed and a little sloppy, “That’s nice to hear.”

An oddly put answer, but Youngho doesn’t think much of it, motioning for Taeyong to duck back down so that he can continue his work of ridding the prince’s hair of crystal embellishments. Taeyong sighs, resting his cheek against Youngho’s clavicle, trailing his fingers over Youngho’s chest underwater.

“I have to leave,” Taeyong breaks the comfortable silence, and Youngho nearly tears a tuft of hair out.

“What?”

“Emperor Park in Hakdong is to send several guests over,” Taeyong explains vaguely, as he always does when it came to royal matters. “And I am to accompany them for the rest of the eighth month.”

The entire month? Youngho pouts, knowing Taeyong cannot see his childish behaviour. Forgetting his mission for a second, he cradles Taeyong in a tight hug, “Will you be going alone?”

“No,” Taeyong laughs, hands moving to cover Youngho’s arms around him, “Brother Minwoo and Minhyung will be coming with me, and so will Valet Jung and Valet Jeon.”

Youngho doesn’t try to hide his disappointment, “Can I come along too?”

“And what would a scholar do on a trip like that?” Taeyong challenges cheekily.

Manoeuvring Taeyong to look up at him, Youngho gives him a heated kiss, more tongue and teeth, breathy when they part, “Please you.”

“I’d love that,” Taeyong grins, surging forth for another kiss. And another, and another, another, until Youngho’s arm is near cramping from the position they’re in. “But I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for me here.”

Youngho brushes his nose against Taeyong’s, closing his eyes, breathing in Taeyong’s exhale, “I’ll miss you."

There’s a disconcerting pause, but, “As I, with you, Youngho.”

 

x

                 

The entire month Taeyong is gone is nothing but dreadful.

For a reason Royal Advisor Kim does not wish disclose to Youngho, English language and elocution lessons with the remaining Second and Fourth Prince are halted. Instead, he spends the entirety of thirty sunrises and thirty sunsets helping out with the valets wherever help is needed, which was not a problem for Youngho; he’s become quite chummy with the kitchen staff (with Sehun’s introduction).

The first week is easy. Youngho spent his days working hard with the valets, helping in the kitchen, with cleaning, lifting and pushing. He worked until he was tired, collapsing into his measly cot out of pure exhaustion.

It’s two weeks into Taeyong’s absence that Youngho’s taken to barely eating or sleeping, and it didn’t help at all that Sehun and Valet Kim were constantly prescribing him as lovesick. The nights are lonely without Taeyong by his side, and he can’t seem to fall asleep, no matter how hard he worked. Youngho thinks about whether or not Taeyong is safe, whether or not he was eating well, sleeping well, doing well without Youngho, or maybe the prince was just as rundown and moody at the fact that they are parted. He takes a good part of his evening to peruse Taeyong’s courtyard on his own, sitting by an especially white flower and speaking with it in hushed tones, recounting his days as if he were speaking to his love himself.

By the third week, Youngho has let his thoughts consume him.

His love.

Youngho knows he’s in deep trouble. It is nothing that would hurt anyone but himself, but the realisation of it hits him hard. He had only playfully thought of falling in love before, but absence makes the heart grow fonder, and it helps him to see clearly. Youngho is sure now. Though, a worry; where did he really stand with Taeyong? Youngho was far from a concubine nor a consort, much less the position of Taeyong’s equal (a second Emperor?) In the tenth month, the Crown Prince’s Revealment Ceremony is set to happen in the East Hall, and Youngho worries at the thought of losing Taeyong in that instant. Once he is crowned the heir to the throne, Youngho, as a paltry scholar, will have no longer have a place in Taeyong’s life.

The fourth week rolls by and Youngho stops talking to the flower about his days. Instead, he practices his speech – he was going to tell Taeyong that he loved him. What could that possibly do to change the future? Nothing, maybe, but for god so help Youngho, he was going to let it be known.

 

Youngho has never been so happy to see young Valet Park riding through the Main Gate on a stable horse, announcing the First Prince’s arrival, the Third Prince’s arrival, the Fifth Prince’s arrival, and the arrival of the Princess of Hakdong.

“Princesses?” Sehun echoes from over their chessboard.

It was the evening of the first day of the ninth month, and as promised, word has come that Taeyong is to returned to the Royal Palace. In readiness for his arrival, Youngho drags Sehun to the Main Courtyard before dinner, settling down on a set of stone chairs and table, engaging in several boring games of chess.

Youngho rises to watch as the three carriages roll pass them, stopping near the stairs of the Entrance Hall, just yards away. Royal Guard Choi disembarks from the first, and Youngho can’t stifle the gasp that leaves his lips when the familiar head of white and pale blue robes follows. Unharmed and looking quite alright, Youngho grins to himself, excited to see Taeyong again, but it doesn’t last long; a princess alights next, and Taeyong has a hand out politely as she hops daintily off the carriage.

Confused, Youngho watches as the Third and Fifth Princes emerge from the second carriage, and two other princesses from the third. The first princess, at a glance, is shorter than the other two, pink robes fitting her just right, brown hair tied up into a tight bun high above her head. Even from such a distance, Youngho can see that she’s beautiful, wide eyes focused on the two girls scurrying to keep up.

Something coils ugly in Youngho when Taeyong holds his arm out, and the princess takes it with a courteous nod.

“Hey.”

Sehun’s hand is tight around his elbow, and Youngho looks down at it, mystified. He hadn’t realised he was about to walk up to them.

“Let’s go,” Sehun says firmly, grabbing the chessboard and its pieces in both his hands, nudging Youngho towards the valets’ quarters.

Dinner is a quiet affair. They take theirs in the valets’ kitchen, keeping Youngho’s deflated self away from the eyes of the others, lest it attracts any unwanted questions. Sehun gives Youngho enough space to fester in his thoughts, and Youngho appreciates the time to think.

Why, why, why? Princesses? He didn’t mention anything about princesses. Youngho sulks, mashing his peas up until they’re fit to serve a newborn.

“Still going to tell him you love him?” Sehun asks, shattering the silence with his straightforwardness.

“Yeah,” Youngho frowns. “Why wouldn’t I?”

Sehun looks at him pointedly, You know why, “Still think it’s a good idea when he is to be wed?”

Youngho reels, “What?”

Sehun shrugs, getting up to wash his dish, “The Crown Prince’s Revealment Ceremony is in a month, Youngho. What do you think the princesses are here for? A merry time?”

“That – ” Youngho feels the ground shake under his feet. “That is yet to be decided.”

“That’s not what I heard,” Sehun sighs, reaching to wash Youngho’s plate too, though it was left with uneaten bits. “Of course, it’s going to be his Royal Highness. I didn’t want to say this when you told me what you were going to do but,” he worries his lip, “What do you think’s going to happen to us?”

Youngho blanches, “What?”

Sehun bemoans, “They’re going to send as back Youngho, to Mapo? Where we came from?” He washes the plate roughly, frustrated. He didn’t want to go back, and Youngho could understand why; there was nothing left for them back home. “We’re only here to serve until the Emperor need not us any longer, and you were tasked to groom the future Crown Prince, what do you think’s going to happen to us now that you’re done with that?”

Youngho has never thought of that, “You’ve… thought about this before?”

Sehun stills for a second, then he continues, “Yes. Haven’t you?”

“Not in the slightest,” Youngho answers honestly.

“Well,” Sehun shuts the tap off, the ceramic plates clanging loudly as he rests them out to dry. “I’m just thinking realistically. You have to think before you do what you planned to do tonight. There might not be much time for us here any longer, and – ”

Sehun’s warning is interrupted by young Valet Park’s loud outburst,

There you are!” He heaves angrily, hair winded from having run around, Youngho assumes. “The First Prince is requesting your presence, Scholar Seo!”

Youngho turns to Sehun, who does nothing but offer him a weak smile.

Heart laden with a new set of worries, Youngho follows young Valet Park to the First Prince’s quarters.

 

The sight of Taeyong waiting for him never fails to make him feel better, and so he does, for a second, opening his arms automatically when Taeyong rushes towards him, a gleeful smile on his face, like a dramatic reunion between star-crossed lovers. Taeyong’s hands are on his cheeks, kissing him giddily, and he barely even pulls away to whisper against Youngho’s lips,

“I’ve missed you, I’ve missed you so!”

Youngho hugs him tight, oh, how he’s missed having Taeyong in his arms, “I missed you too.”

Taeyong laughs, latching onto Youngho easily, and Youngho hauls him up like he weighs nothing, moving to rest Taeyong gently onto the bed. He kisses Taeyong again, soaking in Taeyong’s warmth as the prince holds him close. The kiss lasts longer with Taeyong pushing up against Youngho, and the grip of Taeyong’s fingers on his arm unrelatedly reminds him of his conversation with Sehun,

“ – ho? Youngho?” Taeyong shakes his shoulders gently when he fails to respond. The dread in him that’s been eating him for the past two weeks, now amplified with new concern, can no longer be held off, no matter how hard he tries. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s nothing, I – ”

“It doesn’t seem like nothing,” Taeyong says, sitting up, but grabbing Youngho to sit down on the bed beside him. His hair is messy and his lips are pink, but the blues in his eyes are so clear. Youngho gulps when Taeyong looks at him, concern clearly etched in his delicate features. “What is bothering you?”

Youngho kisses Taeyong before answering, “I – I just – I’m – thinking of how I should steal you away.”

Taeyong’s frown lines deepens before he breaks into another set of giggles, as if entertaining Youngho like a mere child, as if he wasn’t being completely serious. He reaches up to tuck away a strand of Youngho’s hair, resting his palm on Youngho’s cheek, “Are you? And where shall we go together?”

Together. Youngho leans into the touch, “Anywhere. Some place where we can live in the shadows and not have to part, not have to deal with such formalities.”

Taeyong furrows his brows, “What? Are you being serious?”

“Yes,” Youngho says earnestly, already starting to feel Taeyong slip through his fingers. “Why don’t you come home with me?”

“Home?” Taeyong retracts his hand harshly. “You’re going home?”

Youngho’s heart is going to break, “I will have to one day. Won’t you come with me?”

“I am a prince, Youngho,” Taeyong shakes his head, jaw tightening. Was he angry at Youngho’s suggestion to run away? Or at the mention of Youngho leaving? “I cannot simply – ”

“There are tales of princes leaving the palace, Taeyong, why – ”

Taeyong stands, dropping Youngho’s hands, “I am the Prince Royal, Youngho, not simply the Second, nor Third, nor Fourth – ”

“Okay, then tell me,” Youngho rises to his feet as well, easily towering over Taeyong, who stands his ground. “Are you the heir to the throne? For if you are – ” You must wed a wife, and if that is the case –

Taeyong’s face hardens, and he pushes against Youngho’s chest bitterly, “I have told you! Such information cannot be shared, Youngho. It has already been decided years ago, I cannot simply – ”

Youngho’s vision blurs. Is he crying? “If you do marry the princess, I am unfit to be your consort, Taeyong, and she will be your Empress!”

“I don’t want to have this conversation!” Taeyong objects frantically, holding his arms close to his chest. Youngho wishes he could reach out and hold onto Taeyong, but he can’t find it in himself to, not when he’s so blinded by anger. “This was not how I intended to spend my first night back!”

Youngho isn’t even thinking,

“Did you wish you spend it with a princess instead, your Royal Highness?”

Taeyong’s glare is not one Youngho’s ever seen before. Ice cold that knew no warmth, that appeared as though they knew not such a thing as love,

“How dare you utter such words, Scholar!” Youngho cowers at the sheer poison in his voice, “If it is about honour, sleeping with royalty, I will have you properly schooled that – ”

Youngho rages at the accusation; the idea of having to share his loved one was never a concept that Youngho ever thought he needed to acclimate to, not as a lowly commoner wherein status one man shared only one love. Never in his life Youngho’s ever thought to sleep with the royalty for honour, honour to serve the country? How could Taeyong think that way?

“It is not about honour, your Royal Highness,” Youngho equals with spite. “It’s about love. It has always been about love.”

Taeyong turns immediately at the confession, and Youngho follows him into lounging area, tugging him by the elbow,

“I will love you a thousand years if you would simply let me,” Youngho pleads, wanting to drop to his knees if he could. He can’t feel his fingers, and his legs are starting to lose strength.

Taeyong’s voice is softer than he’s ever heard, but the words bring Youngho anything but relief,

“I… cannot reciprocate such feelings when I am in line for the throne.”

What?

Youngho should’ve known he was to meet with rejection, but he wasn’t lying. He would love the First Prince forever if he was allowed to, and his greed does nothing to prove his point, “But I just need to know, please. I – it keeps me awake all night, not knowing, Taeyong, why can’t you – ”

Taeyong looks at him then, eyes conveying such hostility that Youngho is physically shocked. Never would he have thought that he would see Taeyong like this, “I have told you, I cannot reciprocate such feelings while I am in line for the throne.”

Youngho can’t believe what he’s hearing. It can’t be true. It just can’t.

“Am I foolish to be the only thinking we had something more?”

Taeyong’s façade slips for a second, Youngho isn’t even sure if he sees it. He’s too busy crying, “There is no need for such words, Scholar, you need to listen to what I am saying – ”

Youngho backs away, wiping at his ugly tears, and it hurts too much to speak, he can’t breathe. He nearly breaks at the sound of his voice cracking,

“If you were never going to love me, you could’ve warned me, did you know that?”

He flees the First Prince’s quarters, not caring that he might be called for punishment in the morning, for it wouldn’t matter, as his greatest punishment was him leaving the only man he has ever loved.

 

x

 

If Youngho thought the ninth month was dreadfully long, the tenth is much worse.

He wishes he was called for punishment the morning after just so he could see Taeyong again, but he is never called, and never summoned in the next four weeks, the longest four weeks Youngho has ever had to live. Following, Youngho is reassigned by Royal Advisor Kim to help with the decorations the valets are starting to put up in the East Hall for the Crown Prince’s Revealment Ceremony. He is tasked to hanging up banners and pinning up streamers and whatever it is that is handed to him while teetering on a wooden ladder.

Youngho is flat-out ignored by Jaehyun, Valet Jeon and Valet Kim. He figures that they were ordered to stay away from Youngho, just as they were the last time Youngho had offended the First Prince.

When called, he still gets to meet Minhyung, who is the only prince left that is still working hard on the language of English and his elocution, bright no matter how big of a dark cloud Youngho seems to bring with him. Minhyung tells Youngho about the princesses residing in the Royal Palace without much pressure, sharing only things Youngho did not want to know; Princess Jihyo, Dahyun, and Chaeyoung, three princesses of Emperor Park’s nine beloved princesses are here to grace the Crown Prince’s Revealment Ceremony. Youngho wants to ask why they are here, but he already knows the answer; one is to be Taeyong’s wedded Empress, and if not that, his first consort.

Youngho tries to catch Taeyong on another of his walks, but he never gets the chance to. Royal Advisor Kim was always hounding at him for being so sluggish and unresponsive, keeping him at work until the late hours of the night. Even on his breaks and at meal times, Youngho would try to slip away, but eventually getting caught by any other Royal Advisor. Sehun thinks the First Prince has put out a stern instruction to keep Youngho away at all costs.

On top of all that, the nights are much worst. As much as Sehun berates for him to get at least one night of rest, Youngho finds himself tossing and turning in bed, wishing that he could just turn back the clock to a mere few months ago, where he would sit with Taeyong in his courtyard and look at the skies and talk about sweet nothings. That was no longer a reality, and Youngho is stuck in his horrible room all cold and alone.

 

“What?” Sehun says, aghast. “You want to leave? Suddenly?”

Youngho shushes him. It is two nights before the Crown Prince’s Revealment Ceremony and Youngho’s done enough thinking. He need not stay around anymore now that his job of tutoring the princes is complete, and there is sure to be another tutor more qualified to take his place, should the princes need it.

His mind and heart were in a constant state of turmoil. Should he stay? Continue on to remain as help wherever the palace needed it? Wait for the day where he is so disdainfully released of his duties to serve? Would the glimpses of Taeyong, bless that he hasn’t seen his love in more than a moon’s cycle, ever be enough? Even when he’s in the arms of another? Man or woman?

“You don’t have to leave too,” Youngho sighs, picking another napkin to fold for the ceremony. “You can stay, and – ”

“Oh, shut up,” Sehun reaches over to flatten the origami swan in his fingers. “I’ll leave when you do, and I’ll stay when you do, if they’ll let me.”

Youngho is thankful, but nothing seems to lift the rock in his heart.

He picks the napkin up and resumes his work.

 

Seeing the East Hall come to life is very rewarding, and Youngho think it’s the only way he’s going to be able to appreciate it (empty and filled with only valets and handmaidens running about), when Royal Advisor Lee Jinki is by his side, a new set of robes thrust into his arms.

“There will be a speech in the language of English, and your presence is requested by one of the princes, Scholar Seo.”

Scholar. For how long more will he keep the title? It was, undoubtedly, a title Youngho did not deserve, but he’s grown quite used to hearing it. It would be a little sad to never hear it again.

“The First Prince?” Youngho asks carefully, taking the robes from the Royal Advisor, emerald. No other prince would summon him like this, and no other prince is scheduled to give a speech, other than the Crown Prince.

“The message comes from Royal Advisor Kim,” is all he’s told.

With a new task handed to him, Youngho leaves the wreath he is working on to Handmaiden Yoo, shuffling off to his room to get dressed. The ceremony was to start in an hour but there are already commoners waiting by the bay of the East Hall, chattering excitedly at the revelation that is to come. Youngho wonders if he should call for Sehun’s help to ready himself.

At a rush for time, Youngho takes a shortcut behind the Main Courtyard, bowing profusely and keeping his head low as he passes ranks higher than he was. He’s nearly falling off the hallway and tripping over the low beam, if it weren’t for a valet catching him by the arm.

“Ha! Sorry!” Youngho yelps, flailing his arms to right himself. After he’s made sure that his new robes are not muddied, he realises that the valet who caught him is none other than Valet Jung.

As in, Valet Jung Jaehyun.

Hell freezes over when he catches that he is under the scrutiny of not only a team of valets and handmaidens, but their respective princes – the First and Fifth. Royal Advisor Kim is there too, somewhere in Youngho’s peripheral vision, but he really doesn’t care.

Taeyong is staring at him, and Youngho takes back all of the nights he’d spent lamenting over how his eyes to hold no mercy, because they're the warmest Youngho has ever seen. His hair has crystals and gems woven in them once again, and it rightfully steals his breath just as it had that night.

As always, Taeyong is dressed in his pale blue, but much lighter this time, nearly matching the translucency in his eyes. The robes are of a thicker material, taffeta that crinkled whenever he walked.

Youngho immediately feels the pressure building up behind his eyes, and he longs to see Taeyong smile at him, but the prince holds his manner, face void of expression.

I miss you, I miss you. I miss you so much.

Youngho’s heart is broken when he thinks next,

I still love you.

“Scholar Youngho!” Minhyung beams. Youngho only looks away from Taeyong then, as if he were afraid that if he did any sooner, the prince would disappear into thin air. Minhyung is clad in just plain white robes, which should’ve thrown Youngho off, if he weren’t so busy thinking about how Taeyong is standing right there. “You will be attending the ceremony tonight, yes?”

Youngho’s eyes are on Taeyong when he answers, “You summoned me? Your Highness?”

“Sure did,” Minhyung grins. “Wouldn’t want my favourite tutor missing from the crowd tonight!”

There is no chance to ask why because Taeyong resumes his gait, jerking his chin to have Youngho move aside. And he does, purely out of reflex, because his mind is clearly yelling at him to grab onto Taeyong and never let go,

“Wait, your Royal Highness – ”

“Speaking out of turn is unacceptable, Scholar Seo,” Royal Advisor Kim says, offended on the princes’ behalf. Youngho immediately bows, unable to stand the sight of Taeyong now blatantly ignoring his helplessness.

“My deepest apologies, but tonight, please – ” Let me tell you again, one last time, before you are crowned your destiny, how much I have come to love you.

“Scholar!” Royal Advisor Kim is mortified, and he raises his hand high that it makes Youngho drop to his knees, effectively creasing his robes for the ceremony. “You will be properly punished if you do not hold your tongue!”

Youngho grips the hem of his robe, “Forgive me, but I must – ”

“Leave him,” Taeyong commands, and Youngho looks up, in utter despair that the prince hasn’t moved so much a fraction to look at Youngho, pathetic.

“What?” Minhyung interjects, astonished at the scene unfolding before him. “No, Brother, what are you – ”

“Father is waiting, Minhyung,” Taeyong says firmly. It’s nothing like the kind words he had once whispered to Youngho, but it is still his voice and Youngho is desperate enough to savour what is given. “You will do well not to disappoint.”

Minhyung frowns, but when he gives Youngho an apologetic nod, Youngho shakes his head, keeping it low until the rustle of robes signifies that he was left alone once more.

 

Youngho does his best to prepare for what seems to be his last event at the Royal Palace. His reflection is gaunt and lifeless, and his cheeks has seen fuller days, but he takes a deep breath before heading back to the East Hall.

 

Nothing in the world could ever prepare him,

for when Minhyung is revealed as Crown Prince.

 

“Settle down, settle down!” He hears a higher ranked advisor shout across the bay as the crowd erupts into a loud murmur, just as disconcerted as Youngho felt.

Minhyung? No, no. It should be Taeyong. It has always been Taeyong.

From the sidelines, far from where the spotlights are, Youngho rushes forward to find Taeyong, again confused at the turn of events. The First Prince, the Prince Royal, the presumed Crown Prince! He sits on the Emperor’s right, as he always has, but he doesn’t so much as flinch when Minhyung rises instead to accept the regal red robe from Emperor Lee.

Taeyong is seated with his back ramrod straight, hands ever so daintily resting on his lap. Youngho feels like a fish out of water, watching opened mouthed as Minhyung takes his first bow to the people as the heir to the throne. He looks extremely in place, like he belonged in that position, turning with a good-natured smile that Youngho’s so used to seeing.

Youngho wants to run out there, demand what is going on? What is happening? How? Why?

No one on stage is surprised. They all knew. All of the princes, their first rank of valets and handmaidens. They knew. They must have known.

“My people!” Emperor Lee is jovial at the loudhailer held to his lips (by an honoured looking valet). The chatter dissipates to a low hum in an instant.

“This is naught but my longest intention! As a benevolent Emperor, I find that you all should like to hear my reasoning.” Youngho must be dreaming. “My beloved oldest son, our Prince Royal, Lee Taeyong, has refused my appointment as the heir to the throne.” Another cry of outburst from the people. Taeyong was hidden, but his deeds were not. Youngho digs his fingers so hard into his palm that he must be drawing blood.

Emperor Lee only continues when the crowd hushes, “He has cited that he is not a familiar face to the country, nor is his appearance and image fit for the image of an Emperor.”

Youngho is going to throw up. (In the crowd, someone does.)

“I am well aware that the country is worried for the Crown Prince’s capabilities, knowing that he has only turned of age a mere months ago. However, he has been making diligent rounds throughout the city, has he not?”

Sounds of agreement rumble through the crowd and Youngho is relieved to find some people nodding, just barely easing the apprehension in the air. Is that why? Youngho missed all the signs. Was Minhyung already prepared for this? Was Taeyong? Does this mean –

“Alas! My first son has dutifully pledged to remain in the palace for as long as he is needed, as an Imperial Royal Advisor. He will be acting as a figure for our Crown Prince to rely on and trust, for when he does ascend the throne.”

There is a moment of respected silence at the mention of the end of Emperor Lee’s reign.

“I believe in my son, and I trust the nation will too. He will grow into a fine Emperor, and with the support around him, I have no worries handing our country off to both him and his new Imperial Royal Advisor, when the time comes.”

Youngho barely pays attention to the rest of the Emperor’s speech, fixated on the way Taeyong’s eyes are on the speaker, taking no time to search the crowds like he did at Minhyung’s birthday ceremony. Did he know Youngho would be listening? Of course, he did.

Minhyung is on the podium next, confident with his words and kind with his gestures. Youngho is proud of the paragraph of English Minhyung manages to sail through smoothly, but he can’t really think with the thousands of thoughts flying around his mind.

Where does this put me? Taeyong is no longer Crown Prince. No longer in line for the throne. Does this affect me at all, even?

He is taken back to spot on the ground when the crowd bursts into an unsurprising unity of applause and good cheer. Youngho would’ve found it harder to believe if he ever encountered an individual who didn’t like Minhyung.

 

What could Youngho do next?

Nothing, but wait.

And so, he does, returning to his room the moment the sun sets, hoping that young Valet Park is to fetch him yet again.

It does happen, eventually. Three nights past the Crown Prince’s Revealment Ceremony, one night before Youngho is to give up his title and position at the Royal Palace.

“Scholar Seo, are you awake?”

Youngho is definitely dreaming. He is set to speak with Royal Advisor Kim about his departure from the palace, and he must be hallucinating that young Valet Park is knocking on his window.

“The First Prince is requesting your presence, Scholar Seo.”

A phrase he’s heard tens of times that his dreams are even so accurate.

“Scholar?”

“Go away,” Youngho groans, shoving his face into his tiny pillow. He breathes deeply, and he hates that it smells nothing like Taeyong.

“Er, I don’t feel comfortable relaying that message, Scholar.”

Youngho bolts upright, blanket pooling at his hips. His eyes adjust quickly and he spots the familiar chick-like valet peeking through his window, “Is this real?”

Young Valet Park nods, repeating his message, “The First Prince is requesting your presence, Scholar Seo.”

“He is?” Youngho grapples for his robes, slipping them on as he shoves his feet into his shoes. “He’s expecting me?”

“Yes,” young Valet Park hurries him along, moving even quicker than he usually did, which was already faster than Jaehyun. The rest of the way is silent, and young Valet Park leaves him by the entrance to Taeyong’s bedroom.

It is familiar, but that only scares Youngho even more. Is this going to be the last time they meet like this? What does Taeyong want with him? To explain what is going on? Is there anything to explain when they’re practically nothing together anymore?

“You may enter, Scholar,” comes Taeyong’s voice.

Youngho obeys, anxious. He only takes a moment to admire Taeyong in his while silk, the same as the one he had worn their first night together. There are no jewels in his hair, nor blush on his cheeks, only a vacant expression Youngho hates to face. Here, in his room, with just them two, without the entire country staring at Taeyong, Youngho thinks he’s back once again with the boy he fell in love with.

He falls to his knees, hands folded over his lap, taking the most respectful position he can, considering how he fled the other night. As if punished, Youngho is still when Taeyong approaches him without noise, like a minx in the night.

“Scholar,” he acknowledges Youngho’s presence. It is the first time he is not released from such a position, and Youngho lowers his head even more. He might have been hopeful, coming here tonight, but the atmosphere says otherwise, “I did not appreciate your terrible words.”

The apology is automatic. Youngho has rehearsed it over in his head, “I am sorry, your Royal Highness, I am always speaking out of line. Please forgive my senseless words.”

Taeyong is quiet. Youngho itches to look up. “Your words were hurtful to hear.”

He sheds the pretence, voice raw, “I am so sorry.”

Taeyong is quiet again. Youngho’s never thought that silence could hurt so bad. “Did you lie?” A whisper, “Did you lie when you said you were going to love me a thousand years?”

“No, your Royal Highness,” the floors under Youngho are starting to meld together. “I spoke only the truth.”

He hears Taeyong suck in a deep breath, “Then why do I hear that you are to leave the palace?”

Nothing happens in the palace without Brother knowing.

Youngho curses Sehun in his head. Who was he pledging his alliance to? He trusted Sehun to keep mum about his plans, not wanting to rouse attention to himself any longer.

“Is it true?” Taeyong grills, irritable. “Are you leaving?”

Frankly, he didn’t know. He was going to talk to Royal Advisor Kim tomorrow morning, nothing has been set in stone, just written in sand.

Taeyong pushes, “Are you leaving, Scholar?”

“Yes,” Youngho answers in a rush. “Yes, your Royal Highness, I am leaving the Royal Palace. A Royal Advisor more qualified will eventually take my place, should such services still be required by the princes.”

At first, he hears nothing. Then, the knowing crinkle of Taeyong’s sheets, and Youngho derives that he is now seated on his bed.

Taeyong doesn’t speak for the next hundreds of heartbeats Youngho’s counting, so he boldly continues, for if it were his last night with the First Prince, he must speak his mind,

“I meant what I said. I love you, your Royal Highness.” He laughs sourly, “I love you so much, I don’t know how it happened to just me alone, but it did, and I love you.” He swipes at the tears that slips past with his sleeves hastily, embarrassed, “I do not wish to hinder your ruling. I thoughtlessly, but sincerely, suggested we run away because the sight of you with others…” Taeyong’s silence is frightening, but Youngho takes advantage of it, speaking without stopping, without care. “I do not wish to be a thorn by your side, but I am greedy, and I cannot share you, your Royal Highness. I just… can’t.”

Youngho ends his speech with the intention of getting up and leaving, but the sound of Taeyong sighing has him still,

“I am afraid,” an inhale. “I simply cannot follow you, Scholar.”

I know. Youngho knows this already, he truly does.

“I no longer need wed, now that I am no longer the country’s Crown Prince, I no longer have to adhere to the ideal that so fits my brother more,” Taeyong breathes heavily. “But… asking me to leave…”

“My country…” Taeyong continues softly. Youngho is ready to have heaven take him now. “My brother… They need me. I cannot leave, I – I must stay and fulfil my responsibilities. I cannot leave.” Youngho frowns when Taeyong takes a shuddery breath. What? “I cannot simply – it is far too important. There are too many things at risk if I followed my heart once more.”

Youngho’s head snaps up so quick, worry for his life thrown into the lake.

It takes a heartbeat to realise that Taeyong is crying, and two more to realise what is being said,

“Why are you making me choose between my family and the one I love?”

Taeyong is trembling from having kept in the dread deep in him. His hands are fists above his knees, knuckles painfully white. Unlike Youngho, he doesn’t move, and they leave streaks down his cheeks. Youngho wants to wipe them away, but he finds himself unable to do so, the sound of his rapid breathing is too much and he can barely feel the oxygen flooding in him. Nothing is working.

“Is it too much of me to request that you stay?” Another tear falls without Taeyong blinking. He swallows thickly, “Is it too much to request that you keep loving me?” A sob wrecks through him, “As you said that you would do, Youngho?”

Youngho doesn’t care if he’s called for an execution for touching the Prince Royal without permission, because he was going to die either way if he didn’t have Taeyong in his arms.

Taeyong cries, desolate and broken, and Youngho hates it.

“I’m so sorry,” he buries his face into Taeyong’s lap, staining Taeyong’s robes with his own tears. “Please, I will stay with you forever, Taeyong. I didn’t – I – please, let me stay with you. I am hopelessly in love with you, I shouldn’t have said what I said, you did nothing to deserve hearing it, forgive me, please.”

“You did not listen!” Taeyong grips Youngho’s hair tight, pulling harshly as he cries harder. “You did not listen when I said I could not admit I loved you while I was still in line for the throne!”

Youngho is an idiot. How could he have missed that?

“Your words!” Taeyong bawls, and Youngho realises that he was no longer pulling on his hair, but holding Youngho close. “They hurt me! How could you say such things when I love you?”

There is nothing Youngho can say, because how could he have known? So, he cries too, letting Taeyong beat at his shoulders only to hold him tenderly, then beat at his arms to repeat the motion. It takes a long time for Taeyong to calm down, and Youngho is afraid to move again.

“Enough,” Taeyong admits tiredly. He releases his tight grip on Youngho to yank him up by the collar, kissing him roughly, their noses bumping and teeth clashing together painfully. Youngho lets Taeyong kiss him rough, needing it as much as the other did. Taeyong bites on Youngho’s lip, soothing it with a flick of his tongue when Youngho winces at the sting. It slows their kiss, Taeyong relaxing gradually into Youngho’s chest, slipping off the bed to join Youngho on the floor. They break apart when Taeyong throws himself onto Youngho, body weak and obviously exhausted.

“You did not deserve to hear such words from me, love,” Youngho returns the hug. “I am truly sorry. Would you let me atone my mistakes? Tell me how to earn your trust again, Taeyong.”

Taeyong returns from his high, hiding his face over Youngho’s shoulder, “I’m sorry. It's not - It's not all you. I couldn’t – be honest with you, about my feelings, about how much you meant to me.”

“No,” Youngho shuts his eyes. He wants everything to stop. He’ll take all the blame, he doesn’t care. “I never should have said such hurtful words, I – ”

“Stay,” Taeyong says suddenly. “Stay, for I love you, Youngho.”

Youngho never should have acted out, never should have thought of leaving, for his place in this life is right here, in the Royal Palace, with Taeyong in his arms, “Then I shall. Forever, for I love you too.”

Taeyong shifts, “And I want you to see me as Lee Taeyong, not the First Prince, nor Prince Royal. I want nothing between us ever again.”

Youngho knows it’ll take time, but where else is he to be but the side of his love, “Okay. Okay, Taeyong.”

Taeyong tilts away, and Youngho realises that he’s been wrong the entire time. Icy blue, glaciers, the frozen lake. None of those were Taeyong. Taeyong was warmth, comfort, home. There is never true ice in Taeyong, not with his love smiling so trustingly up at him, reassuring Youngho, reading his thoughts so easily that they will be okay. Of course, they'll be okay. With a kiss, Youngho knows now,

 

the hottest flame will always burn blue.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

EPILOGUE

The Royal Palace, Seo Youngho learns in the years he is in it, while enormous and seemingly incapable of holding secrets, does well to prove otherwise.

Youngho remains in the Royal Palace, and he is not given a new title, despite Taeyong’s incessant pleads to have him do so. He is quite fond of the title Scholar, and he thinks the title Imperial Royal Scholar is too much of a mouthful. Also, the valets and handmaidens will never let Youngho live such an unnecessarily long name down.

However, it is made clear to everyone on palace grounds that while his title may not reflect it, Youngho held the status of an Imperial Noble Consort. It was a title reserved for the consort (an unwed lady) of the highest rank, the highest status a partner can be awarded to a ruler of royal blood.

Never one with hungry for power, Youngho is perfectly fine living as he is. When Taeyong is out with Minhyung entertaining guests, or settling with royal matters, Youngho spends his time with Inner Court matters (decorations, handling new staff, making sure everything at peace). He doesn’t show his face officially at ceremonies or formal events, choosing instead to hang out in the kitchens or the courtyards.

Some things were harder to change; the first few trips Taeyong takes out of the city has Youngho worried mad, but he finally comes to terms with how things are meant to be, just grateful that Taeyong is equally eager to return to his arms.

The palace staff are well aware of Youngho’s place and status, but out-of-state guests and commoners were left unaware as to why Prince Royal Lee Taeyong was always rushing back to his quarters after every royal event, a blush to his cheeks and a grin to match.