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such stuff as dreams are made on

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once upon a time

 

 

the first time taehyung meets the prince’s eyes across the ballroom, he writes it off as an accident. there’s hundreds of people here, dozens of women swirling in rich gowns and glittering masks, and taehyung has done his best to make himself invisible.

of course, he’d borrowed his outfit from seokjin, which means the rich blue silk is at least as expensive as everyone else’s, but—well, he’s tried. his mask is black, with barely any decoration; he’s pressed into a corner, content to stand with a crystalline flask of something light and sweet and bubbly and just watch. it fizzes against the back of his throat in a way that feels like a secret, as the shining courtiers pass him by and the prince’s gaze flicks over to him once. twice.

if his father knew he was here, he’d have taehyung scrubbing floors until his hands bled. if any one of the courtiers suspects anything, questions him—it would be worse. taehyung tries not to tug at his tight collar, and glances away from the violet sash draped elegantly over the crown prince’s chest.

the prince stops looking, turns back to the conversation at hand, and for a moment taehyung lets the party sweep him away again. he’s danced once, with a slight, barely-noble girl who’d giggled the whole time before being dragged back into a small swarm of her friends. just the one is enough to have taehyung’s chest feeling light and happy and free, the back of his hand tingling a little where she’d kissed him

he’s no longer afraid someone will recognize him and drag him to the stocks or the dungeons or even just back to the kitchens, where he’ll get flour and soot all over seokjin’s nice clothing, but there’s still the peculiar feeling of being out of place. the music is soothing, not overly loud, and the courtesan’s faces under their masks are sweet and delicate, and taehyung feels awkward and silly with his rough palms and kitchen boy manners. dancing had been fun, but watching is almost as good, when he feels so clumsy.

as his eyes sweep over the dance floor again, then past that to the small throng of people surrounding the dais, taehyung isn’t surprised to find the prince missing, another conversation abandoned. the evening is winding down, but the prince has been on and off the dance floor, never with the same woman twice—he does it more for the dance, taehyung thinks, than the company.

taehyung is scanning the dance floor, struck with a pointless sort of curiosity, when he feels the tap on his shoulder.

“may i have this dance?” someone asks, voice lilting and sweet, and taehyung turns, and the champagne curdles into stones of fear heavy in the pit of his stomach.

the prince stands with one gloved hand extended, a small smile lifting the corners of his lips. behind his mask, his eyes are dark and warm, and taehyung gapes with his mouth open as a servant—the prince’s valet, smirking lightly—gently lifts the glass from his fingers.

the people around them are staring. taehyung’s mouth is still open slightly, fingers clutching thin air. the prince’s smile widens, almost imperceptibly.

“is that a no?” he asks. taehyung swallows down the humiliating urge to throw himself to the floor, prostrate like he has each rare time a member of the royal family has made their way down to the kitchens. he restrains himself to a low bow, made awkward by the prince’s proximity.

“i—” taehyung stammers. he can barely hear himself over the music and the chatter and the sound of the prince’s quiet laughter. “no, your highness, i’d—be honored. of course.”

he can practically hear seokjin’s mocking crow, see namjoon’s eyes rolling to the back of his head. taehyung battles a furious flush, and keeps his eyes averted from the prince’s gaze. he takes the outstretched hand as he straightens, his bare, coarse fingers meeting cloth that’s worth more than what he gets to keep for himself in a year.

“you can look,” the prince murmurs. taehyung glances at him, the heat in his cheeks unbearable, and bites down on his lip. the crowd subtly averts itself from the prince’s path, as he reaches out and catches taehyung’s fingers to tug him slowly, carefully into the dance.

the music is light and slow-paced, something taehyung barely has the presence of mind to be grateful for. the prince takes the lead easily, draping his hand over taehyung’s waist like he knows any stray touch will send the court into a tizzy. taehyung takes a deep breath, tries to keep rationing eye contact.

“i’ve been watching you all night,” the prince murmurs. he has to look up, to meet taehyung’s gaze.

“thank you,” taehyung whispers in the scarce space between them. “but, your highness—”

“jimin,” the prince says, firmly. “and you are?”

“ah,” taehyung fumbles. he’s not sure what the prince—jimin, jimin—must see on his face, but a smirk digs into the corners of his lips, his fingers pressing just slightly harder against taehyung’s waist. “i’m. no one, really.”

subtle. taehyung barely notices the path that’s been cut for them in the dance floor, the whispers hidden behind hands that circulate in the hall.

“i asked you a question,” jimin murmurs. he bites down on his lower lip, badly masking a smile, and taehyung can’t help the way his gaze drifts down. his hands feel unbearably coarse; his steps seem heavy and clumsy, even as jimin leads him.

“and i can’t answer.” the words barely come out. taehyung’s throat is dry and fear bubbles in his stomach like a mockery of the champagne. every time he blinks he sees the way his little brother had crumpled in on himself after half a day in the stocks, remembers tales of the public punishments past kings have had for disobedient servants. but jimin’s brow only furrows behind his mask, lips pressed together like he’s trying to suppress a smile.

“then, can you answer what brings you here?” jimin guides him lightly, and taehyung is graceful enough to keep up with the spinning steps even as his mind stumbles over itself trying to remember what comes next. he’s never been more grateful to his older cousins, the girls who’d begged him to spin them around while they waited for the morning’s bread to rise.

“i wanted to see the ball.”

the truth. taehyung had begged seokjin to give up his invitation—seokjin, already happily engaged, with no particular need to show up to the masquerade. had begged for an outfit, for a mask, for a few brief etiquette instructions. he’s lucky seokjin tolerates him, after all these years.

“i hope i’ll see you around, after,” jimin says. he’s the picture of perfect politeness; so composed, even as taehyung feels his face burning.

“i don’t think so, your highness.”

the song winds to an end, heralded by polite applause. taehyung bites his lip, takes a step back.

he’s caught, before he can get anywhere, by a silk-gloved hand around his wrist.

“call me jimin. please.” the prince’s smile doesn’t waver. taehyung’s throat clicks when he swallows, just audible over the swell of the orchestra into a new song. “sir no one, may i have this dance?”

taehyung glances around. there’s no guards waiting to arrest him, to have him punished for playing above his station. no one recognizes him. no one needs to know that a filthy kitchen boy is dancing with their prince, the room too caught up in the wonder of the night to even think him out of place.

he takes a deep breath. settles back into the delicate hand on his waist, the sweet, crooked-toothed smile beaming up at him.

“you may,” taehyung says softly. under the mask, jimin’s eyes crinkle up at him in pleased crescents.

after the second dance, jimin doesn’t give taehyung time to escape. people are staring in earnest now, ladies barely bothering to cover their mouths with gloved hands. in the half-second between songs taehyung has time to be embarrassed, but jimin’s hand never wavers; his gaze never falters despite the obvious whispers.

“another?” he asks, kindly enough that taehyung swallows down the anxiety mounting in his throat. there’s more eyes on him than he’d ever imagined, and jimin’s are the most terrifying of all.

taehyung nods. jimin’s fingers flutter happily against his waist, warm pressure through the fine silk. it’s thinner than even taehyung’s nightshirt, clings to him in ways that made him look like a stranger when seokjin had given him a final critical once-over, and spun him around to look at his own reflection.

with his hair pushed back to bare his face, and the mask dripping in black beads and embellishment down his cheeks, taehyung hadn’t recognized himself. if he’s lucky, if he escapes this, it should be enough to keep him safe.

soon enough, taehyung starts forgetting to be wary of jimin’s gaze. they’re close enough that hearing him is easy despite the music, and jimin talks casually and sweetly and laughs whenever taehyung works up the nerve to say something. at first, it’s quiet commentary on the courtesans, but the conversation evolves. jimin isn’t fond of the fashion he’s wearing, but his valet had bullied him into it. his younger brother was here, but had abandoned him to spar with a same-age friend, and jimin is inevitably going to take the blame when his suit gets ruined.

taehyung shares what he can. he mentions his siblings, how his father would think the ball an utter waste of time, how his hyungs had fussed over his hair and mask and outfit for what felt like unnecessary hours.

“they did well, though,” jimin says sweetly, as he pulls taehyung forward in the waltz. taehyung feels his cheeks burn, and takes a grateful moment to spin out of jimin’s arms. the air of the ballroom feels cold, all of a sudden.

“they’ll be glad to hear you say it,” taehyung murmurs, when he’s pressed back into jimin’s space again. “i feel like a lost cause.”

“i find that difficult to believe.” the words are almost a breath. there’s something bubbling up between them, something that makes taehyung’s stomach churn with nausea. his lips feel tender from how much he’s been biting them. jimin’s thumb strokes along taehyung’s flank, taehyung’s palm smooths over the planes of jimin’s shoulderblade. breathing feels impossible.

“your highness.” taehyung wets his lips again. half-hidden behind the shadow of the golden mask, it’s impossible to tell whether jimin’s eyes track the movement. “people are staring.”

“please,” jimin says. “if you get to be no one—let me have this. my name. please.”

taehyung feels like he’s trembling. they step past a small flock of girls; taehyung remembers dancing with one, who’s now staring with unbridled jealousy.

this is a courting ball, he remembers, and he’s been dancing with the prince for half a dozen songs.

“jimin,” taehyung manages. the smile he gets is worth the panic of it.

jimin pulls him in just a little closer. he’s warm, and compact, and tugs taehyung in always like a question, ready to let go at any moment. taehyung closes his eyes, and jimin’s hand slips out of his as the dance approaches the steps they’ve been ignoring, until now.

taehyung can’t help his startled yelp when jimin lifts him into the air, and can’t help but stumble when his feet find purchase again.

jimin’s laugh is delicate and as frothy as champagne. taehyung trips through the next steps, half-shocked at the easy strength of jimin’s lift, his heart still pounding loud in his ears. eventually, though, he manages a laugh, and adjusts himself until the waltz starts to feel familiar again.

in the high-windowed ballroom, time slips by like sand. taehyung loses count of the songs, and forgets to be wary, and laughs more freely than he ever would have dared to in front of this sort of audience. jimin doesn’t question him once, and the feeling of being under his attention is intoxicating and warm and addictive.

taehyung wants to keep going for hours. when they aren’t dancing, they’re pressed shoulder-to-shoulder on one of the ornate benches lining the hall. when they aren’t talking, they’re laughing. when jimin isn’t laughing, he’s looking at taehyung with warm eyes and gloved fingers brushing his skin.

it isn’t until the clock chimes two that taehyung is jolted back to reality.

“i have to go,” he murmurs. they’re dancing again, though much less formally. the ballroom is mostly empty; only the last stragglers remain, watching with unguarded gazes and obvious appraisal. jimin picks his head up from taehyung’s shoulder, and gives taehyung the freedom he needs to take one firm step back.

jimin stands alone, posture proud, like he misses taehyung already.

“can i have—” he starts, and cuts off when taehyung shakes his head so firmly his hair almost falls loose.

“i’m sorry,” taehyung says. his eyes are as hot as his cheeks, humiliation or shame or regret pricking at him. “i’m—i can’t. jimin. i’m sorry.”

“i don’t understand.” jimin’s voice is uncertain, for the first time all night. taehyung closes his eyes, and hides his servant’s hands behind his back. “please, i want—”

“i have to go.” to his own ears, it sounds like an appeal. if jimin asks again, taehyung won’t be able to lie. “i do. i’m so sorry.”

people stare when taehyung takes stumbling steps backward, until he manages to straighten himself and make for the doorway. he can hear the fading strains of the orchestra, the quiet murmurs of gossip as he half-runs through the corridor. he walks on muscle memory, taking turns until the walls narrow and the ceiling lowers, until he’s back in the servant’s passageways, where seokjin’s silk and finery is as out of place as a kitchen boy in a ballroom.

taehyung fumbles with the starched collar of seokjin’s shirt, and muffles quiet sobs into his calloused hands.

 

 

 

by the time he’s crept back into his family’s quarters, taehyung is dead on his feet. his sister stirs when he creeps by, seokjin’s clothing wrapped in a discarded apple sack and clutched close to his chest. his father’s snores are enough to mask the quiet sounds of his bare feet on hay-covered stones, but when he pulls down his blankets and settles carefully onto his side, taehyung blinks his eyes open to find jeongyu’s eyes glittering at him in the dark.

“where have you been,” jeongyu hisses. there’s barely two feet in between their cots, though taehyung is lucky enough to have his own—he’s too broad now to fit in the bed jeongyu and eunjun share.

“nowhere,” he mumbles. he curls a little tighter around the bundle of cloth pressed into his stomach. there’s a lone candle flickering on the other side of the room, melted down almost to its base. “with namjoon-hyung.”

“namjoon came down to the hall for dinner.”

taehyung glares as much as he can through swollen eyes. jeongyu squints through the dark, fumbles out with one hand until his palm is pressed against taehyung’s cheek.

“you’ve been crying.” he still sounds accusatory, too suspicious to only be seventeen. “if that bitch noble did anything to you—”

taehyung shakes his hand off with a scowl. “seokjin didn’t do anything to me. don’t talk about him like that.”

for a long moment they’re quiet, taehyung’s jaw tense, jeongyu’s face pinched. they’ve had this conversation before, it feels like; jeongyu takes after their father, doesn’t trust anyone with a title as far as he could throw them.

“go to sleep,” taehyung finally sighs. he rolls onto his back, worms his fingers under burlap to brush over silk. hay pokes through his thin mattress and into his skin, coarse and prickly.

the ballroom feels like an eternity ago, all glittering lights and marble columns and jimin’s hands pressed to his skin. jimin—the prince, taehyung reminds himself. the crown prince, who could have taehyung executed for looking him in the eye. if he weren’t clutching seokjin’s finery tight enough to damage the fabric, taehyung would believe he dreamed the whole thing.

“i won’t tell dad,” jeongyu finally sighs into the space between them. “but this isn’t going to get you anywhere, hyung. you’re still stuck down here with the rest of us.”

taehyung pulls his thin blanket up over his head, and angles his face away, and watches the dim glow of the candle through the fabric until the wax melts into nothing.

 

 

 

the next morning is less hectic than taehyung is used to. he’s still dragged out of bed before the first rooster crows, eyes painfully sore and head spinning with exhaustion. he still holds eunjun’s hand as they walk to the washroom at the very end of the servants’ hall together, even though she’s thirteen and only lets him show affection when they’re both half-asleep. he still wakes up to the familiar motion of kneading endless loaves of bread, surrounded by the familiar sounds of the palace slowly coming alive.

“did you see that lordling again?” his father asks, from where he’s preparing platters for the royal family. taehyung keeps his eyes down, watches the glaze of syrup over the tray he knows gets sent to the crown prince’s room.

“i did,” he replies. the dough is soft beneath his fingers, the last batch he’ll make until the afternoon meal. the quantity of food that needs to be prepared later in the day has risen, to accommodate the excess nobility after the ball, but taehyung has heard enough gossip from the handmaids and valets that have ducked into the kitchen to grab trays to know that most of the castle is busy sleeping off a hangover. “you know he sent for me.”

the whole kitchen knows seokjin sent for him, because eunjun doesn’t know how to keep her lips sealed around her friends. taehyung can see her flush a little, where she’s busy glazing a batch of sweetmeats.

“i don’t like it, taehyung-ah.” his father softens his voice, his hands steady around the wooden handle of the peel. “you know what nobility’s like. whatever he’s promising you—”

“father,” taehyung says, sharper than he intends. his fingers have bitten jagged holes into the loaf he’s kneading; taehyung smooths them out as best he can. “seokjin is my friend. nothing more.”

no one in the kitchen has believed that for a long time. not since taehyung was sixteen at least, and seokjin had been visiting the castle regularly. they’ve been friends for longer than that, and seokjin is more than happily engaged by now, but—well. taehyung knows as well as anyone that it wouldn’t matter, if seokjin were that kind of man.

his father frowns, familiar lines settling deep in his face. he doesn’t reply as he pulls the latest batch of rolls out of the oven, browned just the way they’ve perfected after so many years working together.

the first few days of taehyung’s training had been difficult. he’d only been allowed to eat the bread he made, and his father had no sympathy for when he’d mixed up what seemed like endless types of powder and procedure. taehyung finishes loading the last tray of the morning, and watches as it slides into the oven.

“i’m here!” a voice calls from the doorway, and taehyung startles back to himself like there’s been a bucket of water dumped on his head.

hoseok—jung hoseok, the crown prince’s valet—weaves through the bustling kitchen like slipping through water, winking at kitchen girls as they practically fall in his path. taehyung jerks his head away, heart pounding thick against his ribs, because—hoseok had seen him, last night. had probably watched from the sidelines for hours as taehyung had danced, and spoken, and laughed with their prince. hair pushed back, dripping with borrowed finery or not, taehyung had been stupid. reckless. his face burns like he’s standing in front of the oven.

“i’m here,” hoseok pants again, bracing himself on his knees in front of taehyung’s father. “ah, what a run.”

taehyung’s father smiles tightly, offering out the prince’s usual tray. hoseok glances at it appraisingly, then casts his eyes toward the half-empty tray of pastries, fresh from the oven, the first thing taehyung makes each morning. the two princes’ favorites, they’d been told, and taehyung has started his morning with them ever since.

“mind if i...” hoseok trails off, and reaches over to pile four more of the buns onto his tray with an apologetic grin. “jiminie is in a mood.”

taehyung bites down hard on his tongue. his father quirks an eyebrow, frown settling deeper on his face.

“half of those are for the spare,” he grumbles. hoseok flaps a hand idly, balancing the tray on one arm as he gathers himself back up for the walk.

“jihyun won’t care, i’m sure. and i think making jimin happy is in my very best interest for today, so you’re doing me a favor too!” every ear in the kitchen is turned to him, the girls and boys alike listening for any scrap of gossip they can find. eunjun and a few of her friends take pride in conning the sweetest tales from the royal attendants; they like the currency of knowledge more than the measly scraps of gold tossed their way every few months.

“thank you, sir,” hoseok beams, and offers a perfunctory bow, and strides back out the way he came.

the mangled scrap of dough under taehyung’s hands is unrecognizable. hoseok doesn’t glance at him once.

 

 

 

ten minutes before the afternoon meal, seokjin summons him. the same scrawny page boy from the day before strides into the kitchen, oily hair pushed back, looking far too self-satisfied in his position as he relays seokjin’s request.

taehyung is to take him his food, and knows he will be held hostage for however long seokjin deems necessary. his father’s face goes red with frustration, and jeongyu seethes quietly across the kitchen, and eunjun watches with raised eyebrows as taehyung gathers the tray in his arms and leaves the oppressive heat of the kitchen behind.

he grabs the bag of clothing he’d hidden in an obscure corner this morning, and slings it over his shoulder as he takes the narrow servants’ stairs up to seokjin’s rooms.

“come in,” seokjin hollers, barely a second after taehyung’s knuckles meet firm wood. taehyung groans, trying to balance the overloaded tray without falling over. there’s a brief pause, like seokjin is waiting for someone to enter. taehyung taps his foot idly against the ground, and counts the seconds it takes for namjoon to yank the door open.

“sorry, sorry,” namjoon offers. taehyung snorts, and steps into the parlor.

“don’t plan on keeping me long,” he calls, loud enough that seokjin should be able to hear it. “i think my father is ready to kill the both of us.”

“no man can kill me,” seokjin proclaims. in one half-graceful movement, he drapes himself against the doorway of his bedroom, clad in nothing but a silk robe. taehyung rolls his eyes, and settles down onto the thick carpet with their dinner on the low table in front of him.

“he’ll try,” taehyung promises. he has half a roll in his mouth in the next second, the first he’s eaten since crawling off his cot with the sun still well below the horizon. “i’m supposed to be working, you know.”

“you work too much,” namjoon frowns, from the other side of the table. taehyung shrugs.

“always something to be done around here.”

“skip the small talk,” seokjin interjects. he ignores the ornate furniture and drops like a sack of flour to the floor next to taehyung, his robe riding up obscenely on his thigh. taehyung rolls his eyes and pointedly looks away, to where namjoon is looking critically at the selection of dishes. “taehyung-ah, the court is a mess.”

“what?”

“don’t act like you don’t know.” seokjin levels a pair of chopsticks at him, more threatening than taehyung thinks should be allowed. “no one will shut up about the handsome stranger jimin danced with. all night.”

“ah,” taehyung says, and puts down the remains of his roll. “that.”

“the prince has been moping all day,” namjoon mumbles, like he thinks he’s being helpful. taehyung’s stomach churns, even mostly-empty as it is. he tugs out seokjin’s clothes from the bag, smooths his fingers over the soft lapels of the coat. the blue had been a welcome change of pace from the dusty off-white he wears in the kitchens, the shirt had settled delicately over his frame in a way he isn’t used to. for the hour it had taken them to deem him acceptable, it had been nice to be pampered—taken care of by his hyungs, stations forgotten.

“i didn’t mean to,” taehyung says quietly, when he hands over the bundle. seokjin’s face softens, lips pursing in sympathy. “he just—he asked, hyung, i couldn’t—it’s not—”

“hey,” seokjin says, low and smooth and worried. “it’s okay. you’re safe, taehyung-ah.”

“are you okay?” namjoon asks. his chopsticks lie abandoned in an empty bowl, his elbows braced on the table as he leans forward. the firm set of his jaw is a stunning turnaround from the playful mumbling of just moments earlier. taehyung nods, fingers curled in the empty burlap, eyes cast down to the smudges of flour left over on his hands.

“it was,” he starts. lets himself think back to the glitter of it all, to the warmth and the comfort that had felt more and more natural as the hours passed. “it was—so nice. he was.”

seokjin’s breath of relief is loud, in the sudden silence of the parlor.

“he’s been asking about you,” namjoon says. his foot brushes taehyung’s under the table. “not you, but—”

“jiminie has asked every single noble in the palace if they gave away an invitation,” seokjin says, dramatic as ever. taehyung swallows, mouth dry as the hay he sleeps on. he doesn’t want to ask, doesn’t want to hear what seokjin might have said.

“hyung didn’t tell him who you are,” namjoon says quickly.

“he did notice i didn’t attend, though.” seokjin seems to deflate, a little pomp and drama leaking out of his posture. his hands find taehyung’s, still tangled in his lap. “i said i gave away my invitation, but that i was sworn to secrecy. you’re safe.”

taehyung closes his eyes. the anxiety churning in his stomach doesn’t ebb, but the warmth of namjoon’s foot pressed against his leg and seokjin’s dry hands in his—they help. he can practically hear his father cursing his stupidity, the air-headed fantasies that could get their entire family dismissed from the palace altogether.

“breathe,” namjoon reminds him softly. taehyung nods, eyes still squeezed shut, and drags in a heavy breath. “we won’t let anything happen to you. i promise.”

namjoon’s promise should be worth nothing. he’s a servant too, seokjin’s valet, and though they’d grown up like brothers on seokjin’s family estate, there’s nothing he would be able to do to save taehyung from the royal family. but taehyung trusts him, after long summers spent together in their youths, the three of them barely remembering seokjin’s status.

“i didn’t mean to dance with him,” taehyung whispers. “he’s just...”

“he’s lovely,” seokjin replies, something like exasperation tinting his voice.

taehyung nods. jimin had been lovely; had been polite and engaging even as his manners had faltered the longer they’d danced and laughed. by the end of the night, his arm had been curled almost entirely around taehyung’s waist, his cheeks had been flushed with champagne, his eyes had bunched up into crescents as he made dirty jokes about his least favorite courtesans.

but it had only been one night. no matter how much jimin may be thinking about him now, taehyung knows it will fade. jimin will forget him, and have another ball, and taehyung will stay in the kitchen with soot and flour mixing under his nails, and everything will be what it’s supposed to.

“i should go,” he says quietly. “my father will be waiting.”

seokjin holds the bundle of silk and fine cotton like it’s worth less than the sack in taehyung’s lap. taehyung clambers to his feet, and offers a short bow.

“take care, taehyung,” seokjin murmurs. taehyung nods. he can’t resist swiping a small chocolate piece from the tray before namjoon walks with him to the door; it might be the last glimpse of luxury he’ll be offered for a long time.

“hey,” namjoon calls, before he closes the door behind him. taehyung turns, chocolate melting sticky on his fingers and rich on his tongue. “the prince really liked you, you know.”

taehyung remembers the low golden lighting, the soft wave of jimin’s dark hair, the smiles he’d seen get bigger and wider over the course of the evening. he goes a little soft, lets his shoulders drop from their rigid posture.

“i liked him too,” he admits. namjoon is safe; namjoon knows as well as anyone that people like them rarely get the things they want. “he was wonderful, hyung. but—i’m just me.”

namjoon looks like he wants to say something. taehyung doesn’t let him. he turns as quickly as he can, and hurries back down the hall toward the stairs.

seokjin and namjoon leave the palace the next day, and the court gossip fades into a quiet buzz not long after. taehyung finds himself relaxing, lets the memory of his night with the prince fade into what almost passes as a fantasy. he dreams about it, some nights, but nothing more.

pointless, taehyung reminds himself, every time he catches his mind drifting to soft hands, smooth skin.

he puts the memory away, and tries to make peace.

 

 

 

taehyung has only just succeeded, forcing his attention back firmly on his work and reality, when the invitation comes.

“this is for you,” his father says gruffly, as they’re tugging on their nightclothes. it’s been a month since the ball, and the thick cotton paper is the finest thing taehyung has touched since. he fingers the folded paper delicately, before popping open the wax seal, impressed with the kim family crest.

you are formally invited, says the invitation, in uniform black script. taehyung blinks. flips the paper over. on the back, there’s a chicken-scratch message from seokjin, a few words half blotted-out with ink stains.

“well?” taehyung glances up, at the way eunjun is pretending not to be straining to hear every word said, at the stubborn set of jeongyu’s jaw.

“seokjin-hyung wants me at the wedding. i’m not allowed as a guest, but he says they’ll need help in the kitchens.”

“no,” his father says immediately, and pinches out one of their two candles. “we need you here. and how would you get there? it’s not like we have enough money to send you in a carriage.”

taehyung glances up from the invitation, and briefly meets eunjun’s eyes. she’s staring, now, excitement clear in the glitter of her eyes in the low light, the soft gape of her jaw. jeongyu elbows her in the ribs, and she pinches his thigh without even breaking taehyung’s gaze.

“he’s made arrangements,” taehyung replies, voice getting smaller the more he re-reads seokjin’s tiny handwriting. “for—for me to travel with the prince’s party.”

the room goes still. the sheets crumple in his father’s fist. taehyung slides a finger down the edge of the paper, not sharp enough to cut skin but thick in a way that leaves an imprint in his flesh. jeongyu is staring too, now, eyes as wide as their sister’s. taehyung scans the message again, re-reads i told him about your pastries, taehyung-ah, rationalizes that it wouldn’t technically be regicide because seokjin isn’t his ruling lord.

“fine.” their father’s voice is sharp; frustrated, annoyed. taehyung stares down at the lone candle flickering on the rickety table between them. “if you want to be some noble’s slut—”

“stop,” taehyung says. he has to fight not to crumple the invitation in his hand, to ruin the perfect crispness of the folds. “stop it. i’m your son.”

his father at least has the presence of mind to look ashamed. taehyung takes a deep breath, straightens his hunched, weary shoulders.

“seokjin is my friend, and he’s been kind enough to invite me.” his voice wobbles, just enough that his family will notice. “it would be nice to have your support.”

nice, but not necessary. his father doesn’t say a word. he just looks, disapproving, between taehyung’s face and his invitation.

in the end, it’s taehyung who pinches the last candle out. he tucks the paper under his pillow, pulls the blanket up to his chin, and turns onto his side, so his back faces his father’s bed.

jeongyu’s eyes glitter at him, as taehyung’s vision slowly adjusts to the blackness of the night. they watch each other until their father sighs, and rolls over on his mattress, and begins the deep rumbling snores that mean he won’t wake if they whisper.

“i’m sorry,” jeongyu finally murmurs. taehyung imagines his brow pinched, his mouth turned down at the corners.

“it’s not your fault,” taehyung replies. he knows his father had thought it. most of the kitchen, jeongyu included, thinks it. and—it’s not like taehyung hadn’t gotten offers from nobles, when he had come of age. some of them had met him through seokjin, even. but he’d never taken any of them up, his skin crawling at the thought of being a courtesan’s dirty secret.

“i’m happy for you.” jeongyu admits it like it’s shameful. for a seventeen year old, admitting any wrongdoing probably is. “i hope—i hope you have a good time, hyung.”

“i will,” taehyung promises. he wants to ruffle jeongyu’s hair, but settles for reaching over and patting his cheek instead. “i’ll steal you a fancy plate.”

eunjun snorts.

“what would he do with a fancy plate?”

“cherish it?” taehyung suggests.

eunjun bursts into half-stifled giggles; after a moment of apparent internal struggle, jeongyu joins her.

it’s not all bad, taehyung thinks. not all the time.

he falls asleep with his hand underneath his meager pillow, rubbing the soft paper between the pads of his fingers. when he wakes up, there’s a smooth, thumb-shaped indentation on the invitation, worn into the bottom right corner.

 

 

 

taehyung packs his things slowly. he doesn’t have much—two changes of clothes, one cheap copper pair of earrings he’d let namjoon buy him for his name day one year, replacements for the half-worn soles of his shoes. he’ll be walking the whole journey, presumably, so he makes his pack as light as he can.

the morning of their departure, he bakes the travel bread with his father. the order had come down a few days ago, a list of what the prince’s party would need for the three days of travel. most of it has been sent up to the party already, but taehyung bakes the bread and pastries fresh.

for the few hours they spend working in silence, through the familiar rhythm of the morning, taehyung almost thinks his father is going to let him go without saying anything. most of the other kitchen workers have at least murmured a word of luck, offered a salacious wink, begged for information about the prince when he returns. his father hasn’t brought it up since the night he’d gotten the invitation.

before he leaves, after he’s pressed kisses against eunjun and jeongyu’s foreheads despite their flailing and sounds of disgust, his father stops him at the door.

“stay safe,” he says, after a long moment of silent appraisal. “don’t get yourself hurt.”

it’s as close to a blessing as taehyung could hope for. he leaves his father with a deep bow of thanks, and leaves the kitchen behind.

the sacks of bread and two boxes of pastries weigh taehyung down as he makes his way to the carriage house. there’s enough bread to last, and one pastry each for the members of the party, with three left over for the prince himself. it will make a good impression, taehyung thinks, but anxiety still turns his stomach at the thought of traveling with the prince, and his attendants, and his personal guard.

the ball feels like a figment of taehyung’s imagination. there, at least, he had the facade of importance. if not any kind of equality to the prince, then at least the assurance that he looked like someone respectable.

as a false lordling, taehyung had been brave enough to look his prince in the eye. as a kitchen boy, he feels lower than dirt.

between the stables and the carriage house, the prince’s guard are readying their horses. taehyung stalls for a moment, until he sees hoseok’s familiar face weaving between soldiers, elegant hands petting the horses and cooing sweetly at them as he goes. taehyung takes a deep breath, tugs his bangs securely over his eyes, and starts forward.

“hoseok-ssi, i’m kim taehyung,” he murmurs. he bows quickly, keeps his voice low, doesn’t look hoseok in the eye. “master kim sent word i would be joining you?”

“oh, the lord’s friend,” hoseok says. taehyung risks a glance up; hoseok looks kind enough, though a little harried. “you brought the rest of the food?”

“yes, sir.” he offers the pastries out first, the two thin wood boxes, lined with wax paper. “these are for his highness and the entourage.”

hoseok lifts the lid of the top box, peers in to see the small tarts, topped with heavy cream and thinly-sliced strawberries, and his face cracks into an exhausted-looking smile.

“you are an angel,” he declares, like taehyung is being knighted. taehyung can’t help the small smile that lifts his lips. hoseok falters for a moment, eyes drifting over taehyung’s cleanest set of clothes, before his grin returns in full force. “ah, jiminie will be so happy. come on, i’ll help you hand these out.”

taehyung leaves the bread with the supply cart, and gives hoseok one of the boxes. there’s only around fifteen members of the party, so the distribution doesn’t take long; hoseok introduces him as they go to the members of the entourage.

there’s taemin, the captain of the prince’s guard, who winks at taehyung extravagantly and then moans around his first mouthful of cream, who speaks about the prince like a close friend or a troublesome little brother. there’s chanyeol, the most recently knighted, who had grown up with the prince on the training grounds and treats his horse gently. there’s the footmen jaebum and sungwoon, and the coachman seijin, and hoseok seems to know the name of every horse in the company.

it’s no more to remember than the abundant kitchen staff, but taehyung’s head is still reeling by the end of it. he’s kept his head bowed so low that his neck is starting to ache, his voice so soft that his mouth is dry. the straps of his pack, stuffed tight with a thin mat and the blanket from his bed, are already digging into his shoulders.

“now we just need jiminie,” hoseok grumbles, when the carriage has been set up and the horses are pawing impatiently at the earth beneath their feet. “i swear, that kid.”

“he’s probably still buried under the dogs,” taemin snorts, from a meter above them.

“or his brother.” hoseok sounds more fond than anything. taehyung steps back, discarding his empty box as he makes his way behind the carriage. he, the footmen, and two of jimin’s other attendants will be walking, since the carriage travels slow enough for them to keep pace. taehyung is used to long days on his feet, but he aches already at the thought.

“i’m here!” someone calls from across the courtyard, breathless, and the prince’s guard breaks out into exasperated moaning and complaining. taehyung hears a laugh—bright, friendly, so familiar it makes his heart hurt—and fights the urge to run, seokjin and his wedding be damned. he doesn’t know if he can face this.

“i saved these for you, but i don’t think you deserve them,” hoseok calls. taehyung stares at the dirty leather of his shoes, and ignores the quiet laughter of the entourage.

“nooo, hyung,” that voice whines. “please, i’m sorry, it was all jihyunnie’s fault.”

“it’s always jihyun’s fault,” hoseok sighs.

“they’re my favorite,” the prince says, dramatically pitched, and taehyung ignores the swoop in his stomach. “everyone got one already, right?”

“yeah,” hoseok agrees. taehyung is hidden behind the carriage, frozen in place. “actually—taehyung didn’t take one?”

he freezes. the prince makes a questioning noise, the footmen in his periphery turn their heads. taehyung doesn’t dare look up when he hears the soft crunch of boots over earth, when the voices move closer and closer until—

“kim taehyung?” the prince says. “seokjin-hyung said you were a friend of his.”

taehyung drops like a stone. his hands press flat against the pebbled dirt, forehead resting on his knuckles. his arms are shaking.

“oh,” the prince murmurs. “you may rise, taehyung-ssi. i don’t ask that you bow for me.”

taehyung exhales. he gets to his feet slowly, keeps his head down from the prince’s face. he feels stupid, and insignificant and small and powerless. no matter how kind the prince may seem—how kind he had been—there’s no forgiving how far above his station taehyung had acted at the ball. the prince’s footmen rank higher than him.

“yes, your highness,” taehyung says, as close to a whisper as he thinks he’s allowed. his voice is too—too recognizable, too deep, distinct enough that he has to try to speak in just a slightly higher register.

“hyung said you didn’t take a pastry—ah, maybe you’re sick of them, since you make them every day, but—thank you for thinking of the company.” the prince stammers a little, still out of breath from what must have been a sprint from the east wing, and shuffles his feet. “if you’d like one, please have it.”

taehyung doesn’t know how to say that he’s never been allowed to eat the delicacies he makes for the king’s table. when they’re really lucky, someone might mess up the decorations on a small dessert, and it gets split up into minuscule pieces among the servants. more often, though, taehyung’s father has them throw out anything ruined.

he looks up, just enough to see the flimsy wood of his own box, held out by perfectly manicured hands.

there’s three pastries left, just like he’d planned. with trembling fingers, taehyung reaches in, and scoops out one of the tarts. he holds it in front of him like a bird perched in his palms, and bows again, just slightly.

“thank you, your highness,” he says. there’s a pause, like jimin—the prince, taehyung reminds himself—is waiting for taehyung to say something more. there’s a quiet sigh, the soft sound of the box closing.

“i hope your journey with us will be pleasant, taehyung-ssi,” the prince says. he sounds a little more composed, now, more assured. “i promise, i don’t require much formality. any friend of seokjin’s is a friend of mine.”

taehyung’s neck aches. he’s still shaking, just a little, and he knows the prince has noticed.

“jimin-ah!” hoseok hollers, from the front of the carriage. “we’re already late, get in.”

“don’t worry,” the prince says hurriedly. he takes a step backward. “you won’t be walking long!”

taehyung doesn’t know what that means. he waits until the carriage door shuts, and the footmen have returned to the back with him, before he dares to lift his head.

the pastry is delicate in his hands, perfectly arranged. taehyung is almost afraid to bite into it, like it’s some cruel joke on the part of the prince, but—jimin wouldn’t do that. he wants to believe that the jimin he’d danced with wouldn’t be cruel.

“it’s funny, seeing someone so new with him,” one of the footmen—sungwoon—comments. “really, taehyung, jimin won’t bite your head off if you look higher than his knees.”

“he’s harmless. couldn’t hurt a kitten,” jaebum chimes in. at the front of the party, taemin urges his horse forward, and the carriage slowly follows.

taehyung takes a deep breath. lifts the tart to his lips, like it’s the last thing he’ll ever eat.

flavor bursts along his tongue, and the journey begins.

 

 

 

as soon as the capital disappears from sight, the forest behind them dense enough that it’s the only thing that seems to exist, the party grinds to a halt.

taehyung is almost too caught up in the wonder of it, the total newness of the landscape around him, to notice, until he almost runs face-first into the back of the carriage. sungwoon yanks him back gently by the shoulder, laughing a little.

“ever been out of the town?” he asks. taehyung shakes his head dumbly, grips onto his pack a little tighter.

“you’ll have a nicer view in a minute,” one of the other attendants says. he’s one of hoseok’s men, taehyung thinks. he’s not familiar with the order of the prince’s personal staff, but he knows that he’s certainly not above any of them. even his father bows deeply to hoseok, and that—taehyung knows it’s never sat well with him, or with jeongyu.

jaebum cracks the carriage door open, and hoseok swings out with a bounce to his step and his coat discarded. the prince follows after; he pushes back his hair, undoes the top button of his overshirt, and grins broadly at the copse of trees around them.

“where’s my special boy?” the prince calls. the footmen snort in unison; from his place at the back, taehyung can see taemin roll his eyes as he swings down off his horse, and grabs the bridle of an empty-saddled stallion. the prince steps up easily, his hand small and steady against the horse’s nose. he leans in close, whispers something taehyung can’t hear to the beast, which stands as tall as the prince himself. he’s dark and huge and powerful, and the only reason taehyung can think that he hadn’t noticed it before is that he’s been staring at his own feet as much as possible.

“come on, jimin-ah,” hoseok urges, as he mounts a smaller-looking mare, stroking her neck fondly.

the prince sighs, and swings his foot into the stirrup, and mounts his horse. “you don’t respect our bond, hyung.”

“i respect not being late for dinner,” hoseok scoffs. “let’s go, your esteemed royal highness.”

“no respect,” the prince mumbles. taemin laughs, and leans over the scant space between them to swat at the prince’s shoulder. taehyung watches, can’t make himself look down again until the prince’s gaze falls to the rest of them left on foot. “go ahead, i’ll stay on chim.”

sungwoon bows dramatically, and pushes taehyung toward the carriage with one hand braced on his spine.

“wait—” taehyung says. he turns to the attendants, knuckles white around the straps of his bag. “what? i can’t—”

“come on,” jaebum says cheerfully. sungwoon hoists himself into the carriage and taehyung balks, suddenly faced with an extended hand and the rich, leather-and-velvet interior.

“jimin prefers to ride,” hoseok says, suddenly much closer than taehyung had realized. he flinches back, shakes his hair in front of his eyes, tries to look every inch the kitchen boy he is. in the moment, seokjin’s wedding hardly seems worth any of this. “you might as well get in, since he’s not going to use it.”

taehyung bites his lip, worries at the already-irritated skin. he can feel eyes on him, can hear the agitated steps of the prince’s stallion. it’s the stares that make the decision for him; taehyung grips the attached handlebars, and pulls himself into the carriage, and sinks down into the warm leather seat.

“it’ll be fun,” jaebum promises, as he swings himself in and shuts the door after them. “jimin hates the carriage, though, says it makes him claustrophobic.”

taehyung doesn’t really blame him. after the door is closed, even the spacious interior seems frighteningly constrained. taehyung is used to the high-arched ceiling of the kitchens, the cramped never-ending hallways of the servants’ quarters. he presses himself as close to the wall as possible, stares out the empty window frame at the forest passing by.

“hey,” jaebum says, after a long moment. “you really don’t have to be afraid of the prince, you know. i know he takes a little getting used to but—jimin’s good. really.”

taehyung closes his eyes. i know he is, he doesn’t say. in front of the carriage, he can hear familiar bright laughter, the friendly teasing between the prince and his guard.

it might have been easier, if jimin had been cruel. if he’d treated his servants and guards with contempt or even indifference; if he hadn’t offered taehyung one of his own tarts, if he hadn’t given them his carriage when by all rules of royalty it should be traveling empty. the problem is that jimin is good. the problem is that taehyung can’t forget how it had felt, to have all that goodness directed at him, who deserves it the least.

taehyung nods in response, and opens his eyes, and watches quietly as the unfamiliar wilderness passes them by.

 

 

 

their first night is spent at an inn. the prince clambers reluctantly back into the carriage before they reach their destination, releasing his horse—chim, taehyung thinks, though the prince seems fond of overly-cute pet names for his stallion—to taemin’s care. the entire staff of the inn are waiting for them outside, and the household prostrates itself to the dust when they round the bend.

“thank you for having us,” the prince says, earnest and polite when he clasps arms with the innkeeper, kisses the mistress’s hand. “it’s an honor, really.”

the innkeeper trips all over himself, reassuring the prince that it’s their honor, and they’ve prepared the finest rooms, and looks absolutely beside himself when jimin offers a short bow as thanks.

that night, the food is good, and the drink is supposedly better. taehyung quietly spits his first mouthful of wine into the fire, and watches as the rest of the party proceeds to get cheerfully drunk. jimin had insisted they all eat together, had three of the long tables pushed into the middle of the empty, tiny dining hall. taehyung is sitting as far away from the prince as he can, but keeps his head bowed still to avoid hoseok’s gaze.

jimin laughs broadly, and glares at taemin, and drinks everyone except the coachman seijin under the table until taehyung finally starts to fall asleep with his head pillowed on the wood, and the mistress of the house decides to take mercy and show them to their rooms.

there’s an extravagantly pillowed bed for the prince in the rooms they’ve been given, with what must traditionally be an off-set sitting room set up to house the rest of the party. hoseok, taemin, and the lieutenant of the guard sleep with the prince, so taehyung is left with ten other men to roll out out his thin pad over the hay mattress and curl up as close as he can to the fire without rolling on top of jaebum.

taehyung doesn’t expect sleep to come quickly. but when all the candles have been blown out, and the window shuttered against the pale moonlight, taehyung finds himself lulled to sleep by the familiar rhythm of other people’s breaths, and heartbeats, and quiet snores.

for the first time since he’d picked his way across the courtyard to the carriage, taehyung lets himself relax, and forget for a while about the fear that’s settled firmly in his bones.

 

 

 

he wakes, as usual, hours before dawn. for a moment taehyung forgets where he is, goes to throw the blankets off himself and rush toward the kitchen, before he blinks into the bleary darkness and remembers why he can’t hear his father grumbling, his sister whining as jeongyu drags them both out of bed.

someone snores just to his left. taehyung shivers, the fire long since gone out, the late spring chill steeped far beneath his skin.

the floor is crowded enough that taehyung has to carefully pick his way out of the mess of limbs and bedrolls. his bag is packed already, his face and hands washed in the basin tucked into the corner. his hair is impossible and longer than he usually lets it, but it’s better to hide his face and easy enough to tame with water, though it curls when it dries. no one stirs as taehyung moves, taking trouble to keep his steps light.

no one in the inn is awake, save the cook. she’s older, and already well underway with the day’s bread when taehyung appears in the doorway of the cramped kitchen.

“may i help?” he asks. the cook pauses, gives him a once-over like she doesn’t expect anyone from the palace to know what to do with a skillet. taehyung stays still for the inspection, and bows deeply when she gives a cursory nod.

“the mistress got fruits from market yesterday,” the cook says roughly, going back to the kneading. “heard the prince has a sweet tooth. can you do anything with those?”

she nods at a small bag waiting on the wooden table. taehyung pulls it forward, picks out a few pears and a handful of blueberries. he glances around—there’s vanilla in a dark bottle in the corner, a half-full bag of sugar in front of the cook, cream cooling just outside the door. taehyung nods, and ties the offered apron around his waist, and rolls up his sleeves.

he loses himself in the motions. this kitchen is small and unsuited to anything mass-produced, but taehyung has just enough supplies to make a dozen smaller pastries, puffs of dough with cream and blueberries and fine pear slices on top. the cook seems reluctantly impressed, as she’s moved on from bread to the meat for the company’s breakfast, frying pork until it’s sizzling and taehyung’s stomach is poking unsubtle reminders about the length of time since his last meal.

“the prince brought you to cook for him?” she asks, heavily accented with a region taehyung couldn’t hope to guess. he shrugs, rolls his shoulders back just for the satisfying crack of his spine.

“i’m a guest,” he says, though it doesn’t feel like the truth. he wouldn’t know what to do with himself if he weren’t working.

“of course you’re a guest,” hoseok says from the doorway, and taehyung only barely muffles a shriek. the cook snorts.

after the first shock comes the panic. taehyung shakes his hair forward, pushed back as he worked to avoid stupid mistakes, but the damage has already been done. hoseok is watching him carefully, head tilted just a little to the side. taehyung’s heart hammers in his chest, his fingers fumbling against the coarse wood of the table.

“sorry,” he says quickly, though he doesn’t quite know what he’s apologizing for. hoseok waves him off with a little shake of his head, like he’s dismissing a thought. his face smooths, the cheerful smile returns like it had never left in the first place.

“you made these?” hoseok points at the small tray of puffs, leaning to stare with wide eyes around the cook. “and you’re sorry?”

taehyung blinks. he bows hastily, remembering his manners; the cook looks at him with approving eyes. taehyung doesn’t remember his grandmother much, but he doesn’t remember her ever being this scary. when he rises, hoseok looks displeased again. something uncomfortable settles in taehyung’s stomach—something that’s telling him that the manners he learned are wrong, that he’s making mistakes left and right around hoseok.

from the doorway, hoseok sighs quietly. he takes a step back and gestures taehyung out with him, into the quiet darkness of the hall. it must be just past sunrise, but hoseok looks like he’s been awake long enough to be comfortable. taehyung follows him quietly, after hanging his flour-stained apron on the hook.

“you didn’t have to do that,” hoseok says. taehyung clasps his hands together in front of him.

“the prince likes them—it’s the least i can do,” he murmurs. “he’s been very generous.”

“jiminie doesn’t want you to pay him back.” hoseok’s fingers brush the back of taehyung’s hand. “we’re friends here, taehyung. all of us.”

taehyung nods. he doesn’t know what to say—doesn’t know what hoseok wants from him. hoseok steps back again, the barely-there pressure of his fingers lifting from taehyung’s skin. when taehyung looks up, that curious look is back on his face, the pinch between his eyebrows prominent.

“how long have you worked in the castle?” hoseok finally asks, after a long moment of silence. taehyung swallows and resists the urge to hide his face with his hands.

“all my life,” he replies. hoseok hums, nods slowly. finally, his brow smooths out, the little frown on his lips disappears.

“come on,” hoseok says cheerfully. “everyone else is still asleep. let’s go wake them up, hm?”

he leads taehyung back up to the rooms with a friendly arm slung over his shoulder, and the suspicion on his face fades entirely, but the hard knot of fear in taehyung’s stomach has settled already, and refuses to disappear.

 

 

 

travel that day is quiet. there’s less fanfare as they leave the inn behind, the prince pushing a pouch of gold into the protesting innkeeper’s hand before he clambers gracefully into the carriage. taehyung takes his place with the other servants, and follows the parade down the bend, and doesn’t meet the prince’s eyes or hesitate when the five of them replace the prince and hoseok on the leather seats.

there’s laughing from the horses in front of them. taehyung only notices when the carriage falls quiet, sungwoon snoring lightly with his head resting on taehyung’s shoulder. taehyung itches with the inactivity, too used to spending his morning sprinting around the kitchen, preparing everything for the day. he keeps himself occupied by braiding strands of his own hair dozens of times and staring out the window, until sungwoon plops himself down on the floor of the carriage and demands taehyung braid him, too.

when the sun is high in the sky, they stop by a river to let the horses rest and drink. taehyung and jihoon, a page boy who can’t be older than jeongyu, pull out the carefully-wrapped bread and cheese and apples, though taehyung still feels uncomfortably full from breakfast—and the puff jimin had practically forced upon him, when he found out taehyung had woken early to make them.

the forest, taehyung learns, is never quiet. even under the ruckus of a fifteen-man party, there’s the unceasing rush of the river, the bright conversations between birds, the wind rustling the treetops. it’s completely different, and yet achingly familiar to the continuous bustle of the castle’s kitchen’s. nothing ever stops; nothing ever ends.

taehyung watches as the prince tugs off his boots, rolls up the legs of his pants, and sticks his feet in the rushing water. he leans close to hoseok, who’s sitting next to him on the bank, and murmurs something taehyung is much too far away to hear.

when the prince pulls back, he looks—sad. taehyung tears his eyes away, focuses back in on the remnants of the meal spread out on the blanket in front of him. the rest of the party is watching the prince, though, as he shakes his head at something hoseok says and tosses a stone weakly into the water.

“oh, jimin-ah,” jaebum murmurs. taemin stands, and makes his way over to the bank, and wraps an arm around the prince’s shoulders.

“is he okay?” taehyung risks, anxiety clenched tight in his stomach. sungwoon glances between taehyung and the scene by the river, fiddling with the stem of a dandelion he’d found somewhere in the underbrush.

“you remember the ball, for his twenty-first spring?” sungwoon says.

the sun is shining through the gaps between leaves, but taehyung feels colder than ice as he nods, once, slowly. sungwoon leans in conspiratorially, jaebum inching just a bit closer.

“so, the prince danced with this stranger,” jaebum starts.

“a masked stranger,” sungwoon butts in. “no one knows anything about him, except that apparently he was gorgeous and jimin wouldn’t stop staring at him all night.”

“they danced for hours—”

“—hoseok-hyung says they barely looked away from each other—”

“—and the guy left without even telling his name. jimin was a mess the next day, sending letters to everyone who’d gotten an invitation.”

taehyung feels sick. he cradles his half-eaten bread in his palms, loathe to waste food, but doesn’t think he’ll ever want to eat again.

“but that was so long ago,” he says weakly. sungwoon shakes his head.

“we thought he was doing better. those first couple days—it was hard for him, and none of us like seeing jiminie sad.”

“but kim seokjin was the one who gave the stranger his invitation,” jaebum says. “and kim seokjin wrote that he’d invited the stranger to the wedding, and jimin’s been a mess ever since he found out.”

taehyung hopes, faintly, that min yoongi won’t be the kind of man to draw out his execution when he finds out that taehyung has murdered his fiancé.

by the river, hoseok’s hand strokes gently along the prince’s spine.

“it was just one night,” he says. “why does the prince—?”

“care so much?” jaebum finishes. he shakes his head, takes a sip from the wine-skin they’ve been passing around. “it’s just how he is. he cares about everything, all the time. and this guy...”

“hoseok said there was something about him.” sungwoon grabs the skin, and the last bit of jaebum’s cheese.

“no one really talks to jimin, people who don’t know him. they’re talking to the prince, the idea they have of him in their head. the stranger—”

taehyung’s neck is starting to hurt from glancing between the two of them. jaebum pauses to steal the pear from sungwoon’s hand, and cuts into it with a folding knife he pulls from his pocket.

“jimin liked him.” jaebum finishes plainly. “and he was hurt when he didn’t even get a name, but he said he felt more comfortable with him than anyone else at the ball. so for jimin’s sake, i hope he finds who he’s looking for.”

“for my sake too,” sungwoon says. “if i have to hear about this guy’s sparkling eyes one more time, i swear i’ll go back to the stables.”

jaebum rolls his eyes, and throws pine needles in sungwoon’s face, and the conversation devolves from there into petty wrestling for the last half of the pear. taehyung settles back, gaze drifting once again to the riverbank, and the prince’s head resting on taemin’s shoulder, and hoseok’s fingers tangled loosely in the hair at the back of jimin’s neck.

jimin, taehyung thinks. it feels wrong to think of him like that, to blur the careful distinction taehyung has just managed to build between that night and the real world. a prince without a name is just a figurehead—but a prince who makes friends with his servants, who treats his horse like a puppy, who looks at taehyung when presented with a wooden platter of pastries and says you take one first

taehyung doesn’t know what to do with that. he wants to turn back and return to the safety of the palace kitchens. he wants to rush ahead and fling himself on top of seokjin and cry. he wants, more than anything, to know what he’s supposed to do.

but no one appears to give him answers out of thin air, and sooner than he’d like, taehyung is pressed back into the carriage. conversation comes a little easier, the odd stillness of the morning shaken off with food and rest.

there’s still less laughter from the head of the party, though, and taehyung finds himself straining to catch every snippet of jimin’s bright, infectious laughter that drifts through the open window.

 

 

 

that night, around an open campfire, taehyung keeps catching hoseok’s eye. he’s made himself as unobtrusive as possible, toasting his bread over the fire before retreating back to his bedroll, but hoseok keeps looking. the warm light sharpens the shadows along his jaw, makes him look a little harder and more angular than the man who’d been sneaking his mare sugar cubes after the horses were tied.

taehyung avoids his gaze when he can, sticks to talking and laughing quietly with jaebum and sungwoon, who seem pleased to have taken him in with them. the campfire is more relaxed than the inn, without the staff lining the walls, ready to attend to anything the prince might even think to desire; the guard especially settling in a little more comfortably after tents have been pitched and the prince has stripped off everything but a plain shirt, so that he could almost be their equal.

there’s a drinking song mumbled between intermittent mouths, trailing off and picking back up again as the men talk and laugh, and taehyung gets so distracted trying to protect his dessert—a thick slice of bread, spread with butter and drizzled with honey—from sungwoon that he forgets to be wary of hoseok’s eyes on him.

“stop it,” he gasps, shaking with laughter as he’s pinned under a body that, while at least ten centimeters shorter than him, manages to have him struggling to keep his prize.

“i’m hungry,” sungwoon whines, sitting firmly on taehyung’s esophagus. taehyung wheezes, and crams the last overlarge mouthful of bread in his mouth, and stares resentfully as he struggles to chew. sungwoon scowls, sticks out his tongue, and sticks a finger in taehyung’s navel.

the wrestling that ensues, cheerfully joined in by jaebum, is encouraged loudly and cheerfully by the rest of the party. taehyung loses, but not by much, and he lies on his back in the dust panting and satisfied, until sungwoon offers him a hand and dusts off his back and gives him the bedroll spot closer to the fire.

“call me hyung,” sungwoon insists cheerfully. taehyung finishes patting down his bedroll, and flops back so hard his breath is knocked out of his lungs.

across the camp, hoseok follows the prince and taemin into the largest tent. taehyung knows hoseok shares the prince’s chambers in the palace, as is custom for valets, and taemin has kept close to the prince ever since they left the capital. there’s some high-pitched giggling from inside the tent, an awkward thump, and the familiar crow of hoseok’s laugh.

tonight, it’s harder to fall asleep. the forest is like the castle—never quiet, almost as if it breathes, but unfamiliar in a way that has him blinking into the darkness of the canopy above him for long after the fire has died.

 

 

 

when he wakes up, the sky is the hazy kind of pre-dawn brightness taehyung hasn’t seen in weeks. he blinks, unwinds his arms from the bunched-up blanket he’d gathered in his sleep. usually he’d be in the kitchens by now, would have been for at least an hour already. it feels strange to rise with the dawn.

rather than before it.

taehyung pushes himself up onto an elbow, scrubs his face with one hand, sweeps his bangs out of his eyes and frowns when they fall back limply. his hair is almost long enough to tie back now, with half of it sprawling into a ponytail at the top of his head that seokjin had always loved to tug at when they were younger. taehyung sighs, and drags one hand across his mouth, and finally sits up. the cracks in his spine are systematic and satisfying, as he settles into himself fully. taehyung shakes himself out, rubs the sleep out of his eyes.

and looks to the fire to find hoseok crouching behind it, eyes narrowed, watching.

taehyung freezes. the fire is slowly coming alive again, small flames licking up the fresh logs hoseok has laid down; the chill is starting to shake from taehyung’s skin from his proximity. for a moment, neither of them move.

hoseok pushes himself up, dusting off his palms, jerks his head toward where the horses are tied, and stalks away from the fire.

at first, taehyung doesn’t move. he can feel his own heartbeat angry against his ribs, can taste the slow rise of acid at the back of his throat. hoseok clears his throat from somewhere behind his back, and taehyung scrambles to his feet like there’s an arrow pointed at his throat.

when he reaches taehyung, bare feet damp with the morning dew, hoseok has is busy untethering his mare. his hands are gentle against her cheeks, the slope of her nose, the softness of her ears; he whispers a few words in her ear, lifts a few apple slices to her lips, strokes a hand down her flank.

“go on, hope-ah,” he murmurs, and she trots away, still munching. taehyung hugs his arms close to his stomach, waits until hoseok’s gaze inevitably falls back onto him, eyes as alert as if it were the middle of the afternoon.

when hoseok steps forward, taehyung resists the urge to retreat back. he keeps his eyes lowered, all the fear jolted back into his body from days before. hoseok stops a few paces away, so quiet that all taehyung can hear is the sound of the forest slowly coming to life around them.

“push your hair back,” hoseok says. he’s so still, and taehyung has observed him around the castle for long enough that he knows that this is unusual, this is serious. his hands are shaking, when he lifts them to his face.

the longer taehyung stands, holding his hair up in an imitation of the painstaking hairstyle seokjin and namjoon had wrestled him into, the more his eyes sting, his throat burns. he knows—hoseok is going to wake jimin up, and the whole camp, and he doesn’t know if they’d have him killed on the spot but something about taemin holding the sword, jimin watching from a distance, the entire party knowing how stupid and foolish he’d been—

“oh,” hoseok says. there’s something like panic in his voice, as he takes another step closer. “don’t—hey, taehyung-ah, don’t cry. it’s okay, don’t cry, shit.”

taehyung blinks. the ground swims under his feet, his hands tingling as the blood flows back to his fingers as his arms go slack at his sides. hoseok grips his wrists loosely as taehyung tries to stifle it, little hiccups choked past his lips as he forces down uglier sobs.

“it’s okay,” hoseok says again, a little desperately. “you’re him, right? from the ball.”

taehyung, for lack of anything else to say, nods. when keeping down the sobs becomes too much to bear, he clamps a hand over his mouth and closes his eyes tight, waiting for the inevitable strike, or for hoseok’s grip on his wrist to turn bruising.

“i didn’t even think.” hoseok sounds—not angry. taehyung waits, still, for the anger. “we asked every noble we could get the name of, but all this time—”

“i’m sorry,” taehyung finally manages. he’s terrified of waking anyone else, of alerting the camp before hoseok inevitably will. “i’m sorry, hoseok-ssi, he won’t ever know—”

“don’t apologize, hey.” hoseok’s hands drop, until taehyung feels soft fingers on his chin, a thumb smearing tears kindly across his cheek. taehyung is still too afraid to look up.

“i never meant to,” he whispers through his fingers. hoseok breathes in sharply, cups taehyung’s jaw in his hands.

“we’ve been looking for you everywhere,” hoseok murmurs. “jiminie was so upset, wanted to find you at least so he could thank you—he’s going to be so happy.”

“no,” taehyung manages. it catches in his throat, stronger with every repetition. “no, no, please—he can’t. please, no—”

hoseok makes a small, distressed noise.

“look at me,” he says. tilts taehyung’s chin up himself, waits for taehyung to peel open his eyes and blink away the tears until they cling heavy to his eyelashes. his breath is tremulous and unsteady, aching in his chest as he tries to ground himself.

hoseok doesn’t look scary anymore. in the early dawn light, he looks—softer. his hair hasn’t been brushed. there are faint smile lines around his mouth, dimples that dig into his cheeks as he frowns gently.

“i’m not gonna hurt you,” he says quietly, firmly. “if you were hurt, or uncomfortable, i can back off. let you keep it from jimin if you want. but—you haven’t seen how much he thinks about you. he still asks, every day, if we’ve heard any news.”

taehyung shakes his head, as much as he can with hoseok’s palms sandwiching his cheeks. “he didn’t hurt me.”

hoseok’s brow is pinched, in that way that makes him look kind. taehyung takes a deep, shuddering breath, and looks away. hoseok’s hands loosen a little, thumbs catching on the smeared wetness on his skin. he’s not crying anymore, not really, but a few final tears drop when he blinks to clear his vision.

“you’re going to tell him,” hoseok says. “right?”

taehyung lets his silence speak for itself. hoseok blinks at him, and taehyung tries to gather himself enough to cut him off before he speaks.

“he thinks i’m titled, right?” his voice sounds awful, thick and rough and barely comprehensible even to his own ears. hoseok’s mouth gapes a little bit, his whole face pinching just a little. “he thinks—i’m some wealthy friend of hyung’s. but i’m not, i’m—i was stupid, i’m just—”

he gestures down at himself, at the coarse clothing and dirty feet and awkward roughness of himself, and watches hoseok’s eyes follow the movement. watches hoseok’s shoulders slump in sympathy, his hands softening on taehyung’s cheeks. the proximity is strange, almost uncomfortable with hoseok’s still-frightening intensity. taehyung wonders if he knows how he looks when he’s concentrating on something.

“i’m just this,” he says, a little quieter, a little choked. hoseok shakes his head, drops his hands to circle taehyung’s wrists again. without the warmth of his palms, taehyung’s face stings in the cold morning air.

“he liked you. a lot. it wouldn’t matter—”

taehyung shakes his head. there’s that ugly hope crawling up his throat again, the pointless dreams he’d had to squash in the last month every time his mind drifted away from work, family, their unshakable place in the intricately rigged palace hierarchy.

“it would matter to the king.” and even as he says it his mouth dries, chest tight with fear. “and—it was a mistake. i should never have gone.”

he tugs his wrists away, and holds them close to his chest. hoseok fumbles for a moment, before smoothing down his shirt. it’s plain, travelwear, still nicer than anything taehyung owns. he grinds his teeth, sets his jaw, stares back down at the ground. remember your place, his father’s voice hisses in his head, like he’d said a dozen times during those long lazy summers, dragging taehyung away from seokjin with a tight grip on his ear.

“okay,” hoseok says, the lilt of disappointment clear. “i won’t say anything. but looking out for jimin is what i do, and—i think you should tell him. he’s not whatever you’re trying to make him in your head.”

taehyung keeps his eyes averted. he bows shortly. his face feels puffy and swollen, eyes still hot from crying, tears still smeared across his cheeks.

“thank you, hoseok-ssi,” he says, as formally as he can manage. “i promise i won’t be a burden for the rest of the journey.”

he leaves before hoseok can say anything in return, picking his way back to the fire as the rest of the camp slowly starts to rouse, leaving hoseok in his wake.

 

 

 

before they start the final stretch of the journey, taehyung crouches by a narrow creek and dips his hands in the icy water. he gasps quietly when the shock of the cold hits his face as he scrubs it, his fringe damp in front of his eyes, but it’s worth it to feel just a little cleaner after sleeping on the forest floor.

the camp bustles behind him, everyone busy stuffing away their bedrolls and squabbling over the remnants of breakfast, but taehyung welcomes the quiet hum. he’s so lost in the peace of the moment, smearing away the dirt on his neck and forearms and behind his ears, that he doesn’t notice the presence behind him until he hears a huff, and feels breath warm against his nape.

taehyung turns so quickly he almost stumbles backward into the creek, running almost face-first into the prince’s stallion.

“hello,” he mumbles breathlessly, when his heart has settled back down from its brief moment of panic. the horse huffs again, and nudges his nose against taehyung’s cheek, snuffling against his hair like he’s looking for remnants of food. taehyung stands frozen, hands at his sides, as the horse only seems to grow more interested.

velvet-soft lips brush against his neck, and taehyung shivers. lifts his hand, unthinkingly, to stroke at the beast’s neck.

“chim!” a familiar voice calls, footsteps thudding against the earth, and taehyung’s hand snaps back down to his side like he’s been burned. he doesn’t know if touching royals’ horses is a crime, but he wouldn’t be surprised.

“sorry, i’m so sorry,” the prince pants, grabbing chim by the bridle and tugging him away gently. the horse seems reluctant to go, ears twitching, one beady eye trained on taehyung as he shifts. “he’s a menace, you don’t have to put up with him.”

taehyung inclines his head, and can practically see the prince’s soft pout even with his eyes lowered.

“he’s sweet,” taehyung says, because he’s almost as scared of being forced to speak as he is of the prince recognizing his voice. he tries to speak higher, in almost a whisper, hopes that it’s enough that the prince won’t think twice.

“sure,” the prince says, fond and sarcastic. there’s the sound of scratching, nails against fur. chim blows out hard, and taehyung’s bangs flutter with it. he holds the short bow, and hopes the prince isn’t looking too closely.

“i hope you’ve been comfortable traveling with us.” the prince’s voice is a little stuttered, oddly formal in a way that makes taehyung almost uncomfortable. jimin is speaking to him like an equal—like someone to be respected.

“yes, thank you,” he risks. doesn’t add your highness to the end, because he’s seen the way it makes jimin’s nose scrunch in distaste up close.

“and—i hope if i’ve been making you uncomfortable, you can tell hoseok, or someone else.” his voice is so earnest, and taehyung’s cheeks flush at the implication. he offers a silent nod, embarrassment hot in his veins as he fumbles for something to say that isn’t an apology.

in the end, he comes up blank. chim spares him the indignity of answering by turning his head and brushing his cheek along taehyung’s shoulder, and the prince tugs him away with a sigh.

“i’ll get this beast away from you,” he says, resigned. and then, with a laugh: “i guess he likes your baking as much as i do.”

this time, taehyung’s embarrassment stems from something altogether different. and judging from jimin’s small, parting giggle, it hasn’t gone unnoticed.

 

 

 

they arrive at the kim manor just before dusk. just before they exit the forest, the prince dismounts with no small amount of complaining, and taehyung files out with the rest of the attendants as he climbs resentfully into the carriage, hoseok at his heels.

“he’s such a brat,” jaebum sighs, affection so thoroughly laced into his voice that it makes taehyung gag.

the short walk is nice, after spending so long cooped up in the carriage. his legs ache a little, unused to spending so long off his feet, and taehyung finds himself almost disappointed when they approach the manor, approaching the welcoming party spread out for the prince’s arrival.

the carriage pulls to a stop in front of the grand entrance, and taehyung makes brief eye contact with seokjin before jaebum swings the carriage door open, obscuring him from view, and the prince descends.

they must have been storing his fine clothing somewhere, because the fine red coat settled over the prince’s shoulders comes as a shock. when he turns to glance at hoseok, taehyung catches a glimpse of his neatly-styled hair, the buttons of his shirt done all the way up, the golden chain decorating his throat.

“prince jimin,” seokjin’s father murmurs, as the household sweeps into a collective bow. “it’s an honor to have you.”

“the honor is mine, lord kim. i was delighted to receive the invitation.” jimin’s voice is smooth, elegant, as he offers out his hand to be kissed.

“i hope your stay will be pleasant.”

“i’m sure it will be,” jimin says.

there are other pleasantries that taehyung loses track of in the ensuing bustle. he catches a glimpse of the prince clasping arms with seokjin, then being pulled into a playfully aggressive embrace, then hoseok tugging namjoon into a half-hug and smiling gleefully as he ruffles namjoon’s hair.

by the time taehyung has helped unload the carriage into the prince’s chambers, dinner has been well underway for a long time. he barely makes it down to the servants’ hall to collapse onto a bench with the footmen, reaching for the last few slices of bread and cuts of meat to satisfy the cruel rumbling of his stomach.

“i can’t wait to see a real bed again,” sungwoon moans around a mouthful of stew. “my back is dying, i’m dying.”

“you’re not dying,” jaebum reassures him kindly, and steals his last slice of bread.

they start the familiar routine of half-barbed insults and petty smacks, and taehyung is content to sit and watch and drain cup after cup of water until he’s satisfied and slumped forward with his head pillowed on his arms, and he feels a tap on his shoulder.

“hyung wants to see you,” namjoon murmurs in his ear. taehyung groans, his forehead thunking against solid wood. sungwoon and jaebum have gone suspiciously quiet—taehyung can only hope they wait a few hours to relay the gossip to everyone else in the party.

“i’m tired,” taehyung whines, looking up at namjoon through his bangs and pouting his lips out. he counts one, two, three, sees namjoon waver a bit, before strong hands are tugging at his shoulders.

“come on taehyung-ah,” he cajoles. “hyung saved you dessert.”

that, at least, gets taehyung out of his seat, and the laughter of the footmen follows him out the door, with namjoon at his heels.

seokjin has, to taehyung’s utter shock, actually managed to save him dessert. there are a few small court cakes piled on a tray in seokjin’s lavish entertaining room, but he hooks his arms around taehyung’s chest and drags him into a hug before he can make it to the table.

“taehyung-ah,” he croons, planting a sloppy kiss on taehyung’s cheek. he smells vaguely of rich wine, and taehyung shoves seokjin off him with a pout and a beeline toward the sweets. “is this how you treat your favorite hyung? me, who invited you to my wedding? the most perfect and wonderful day of my life with my beloved fiancé?”

“yes,” taehyung says, through a mouthful of pastry. seokjin wails in anguish and collapses backward onto his strategically placed fainting couch.

“there there,” namjoon consoles him. he pats seokjin’s head gently, and nudges the platter a little closer to taehyung.

“the betrayal,” seokjin moans. “the shame.”

“these are good.” taehyung smiles sweetly at namjoon, and gets a wink in response.

“i stole them off his plate when he wasn’t looking,” namjoon whispers. “i had to threaten him to keep them safe just for you.”

“i cannot believe this. my two closest friends conspiring against me? maybe yoongichi and i should just elope and run away and become goat herders. anything to escape this torment.” seokjin’s face contorts more the longer he speaks, until he’s practically snorting with laughter at the end. taehyung can’t stifle his laughs, and collapses—half in exhaustion, half in malice—on top of seokjin’s gut.

“i missed you,” he sighs, as seokjin’s arms wrap firmly around his waist, namjoon’s chin resting kindly atop his head. “i feel like we never see each other anymore.”

“i bet we’d see each other more if i became a goat herder and abandoned my inheritance,” seokjin bemoans.

“you’ve never interacted with a goat in your life,” namjoon mumbles. “do you even know what they eat?”

“human flesh,” seokjin responds primly, without hesitation.

“i’ll take your inheritance if you don’t want it.” taehyung feels himself loosening inch by inch, relaxing into the familiar banter and the comforting touch. he’s been brought here to work, technically, but seokjin always manages to lull him into that place where responsibility doesn’t seem quite as important.

“please,” seokjin says. “when you marry the prince you’ll be richer than i could ever dream.”

“um,” taehyung replies. namjoon’s arms wind loosely around his neck, an awkward sort of hug.

“don’t tease him,” he scolds. “taehyung-ah, you don’t have to marry the prince.”

“but if you don’t i’ll kill you. if jimin weren’t like an annoying pet to me, i would poison yoongi myself if he ever glanced my way.”

taehyung buries his burning face in his hands and groans, long and exhausted. he feels namjoon’s laugher rumbling in his chest, seokjin’s chuckles underneath him as he drags taehyung down, down, until they’re practically cuddling on the fainting couch that feels much too delicate for this.

“there there,” namjoon says again, awkward and tinged with humor. “rough trip?”

and taehyung, struck with the absurdity of it all and finally free from the stress and panic of constant surveillance, muffles laughter into seokjin’s chest until he’s too exhausted to do anything but let himself be held.

 

 

 

the bedroom namjoon leads him to, well after dusk, is near the kitchens. there’s an oil lamp on a sturdy-looking table, a wardrobe pressed into a corner, and a real bed that practically has taehyung drooling at the thought.

“sorry we couldn’t get anything nicer,” namjoon apologizes, like this is anything to be sorry for. taehyung shakes his head mutely, drops his single bag to the floor next to the plainly carved stool in front of the small bucket of water next to the table, a ladle hooked over its lip. “there’s plenty of guests on their way, and you know how lord kim gets.”

“this is wonderful,” taehyung promises. he sits down heavily on the bed, swaying a little on his feet after the trek from seokjin’s chambers to the rougher servants’ quarters. he feels bad for namjoon, who has to walk back up all those stairs to collapse into his own bed, just a room away from seokjin. “i wouldn’t mind sleeping in the stables, really.”

namjoon perches next to him, awkwardly earnest, hair pushed back like he never used to wear it when they were younger.

“you know seokjin is joking, right? neither of us are going to tell the prince about you, not if you really don’t want.”

taehyung nods, looks down at his hands. there’s remnants of sugar powder underneath his nails that he’ll need to scrub out before he sleeps. “i know. but—hoseok found out. the prince’s valet.”

“will he say anything?” one of namjoon’s hands finds his, lips pursed in careful thought.

“no,” taehyung says. “i don’t think so. he wants me to tell the prince myself.”

“and you’re not going to.” it’s not a question; namjoon knows him better than taehyung knows himself, sometimes.

“he’s a prince,” he whispers, on an incredulous little laugh. “hyung, in what world would he want me?”

there’s a long moment of silence. namjoon looks like he doesn’t quiet know what to say, opens his mouth a few time before he manages to articulate anything. taehyung is deeply tired, suddenly, of being told that jimin is good, that jimin wouldn’t care, but namjoon always manages to know what he needs.

“you’re right,” namjoon says slowly. “he is a prince. and maybe he was just caught up in the ball. but, taehyung-ah, what if you never try? you wanted so badly to be there in the first place. you can’t just live the rest of your life pretending that what happened wasn’t real.”

taehyung closes his eyes. in his mind, it feels like a fairy tale—like the ball was a story whispered to him by one of the older cooks, like he’d dreamed up the gentle hands and bright laughter of the crown prince of his kingdom.

“it might be better,” he says. namjoon’s fingers are gentle through his hair, the sigh deep and heavy in his chest.

“what happened to my favorite kid, huh?” namjoon asks. taehyung’s shoulders slump, his elbows braced on his knees, namjoon carding through the hair at the back of his neck. “you used to think you could do anything.”

“i grew up,” taehyung says. “you know? i thought for so long i was gonna get out and do something amazing, but—this is all there is. hyung’s getting married, and i’m going to go back to the castle and spend the rest of my life in that kitchen.”

the echo of his voice in the silence after the words fall is enough to tell taehyung that he’s right. that no matter how much he wants to, there’s nothing namjoon can do to fix it, the way he’d cleaned and bandaged taehyung’s knees after he’d fallen one summer, chasing seokjin down a rocky path toward the training yard.

“i’m sorry,” namjoon says. taehyung is right, and namjoon knows it.

the prince is a pipe dream, taehyung tells himself.

“it’s okay.” really, it is. in the last few years, after seokjin had returned to his own family land after his years at court, taehyung has had plenty of time to get used to it. “i’m glad i’m here now, at least.”

“wouldn’t be the same without you,” namjoon promises. when he pulls taehyung in for a hug, he’s warm and broad and just as comforting as he’s always been, even when they were both teenagers and had too much limb between them to know what to do with. “taehyung-ah, try to remember how it felt, this week. when you thought you could be anything.”

the wedding is in seven days, and the journey back to the castle takes three.

ten days, taehyung promises himself. as he puts out the lantern and tucks the soft blankets tightly around himself that night, he thinks about the way the prince’s eyes had squinted up under his mask when he laughed. about the conversation, and how words had flowed easily when he’d allowed himself to forget the stakes.

ten days, and taehyung will let the prince go.

 

 

 

the kitchen the next morning is rushed and bustling, taehyung slipping into the kitchen later than he should to find it in an uproar, the cook merciless in her command of every inch. taehyung stands on the threshold and takes it in for a moment—the kitchen is smaller than his, a little understaffed, but each person moves seamlessly through the chaos like it’s a dance they’ve been learning their whole life.

“you’re the castle boy?” the cook barks, when she notices him. taehyung snaps back to attention, nods quickly. she doesn’t hesitate, steering him bodily over to a lightly-floured table and thunking down a bag of flour. “you’re in charge of the prince, then. you know what he likes.”

“um,” taehyung says. the cook raises an eyebrow, shoves forward a sheet of wax paper and a stick of graphite.

“write down anything you need us to buy,” she says shortly. with one hand, she steers a serving girl out from a collision course, hooks her finger in the back of a teenager’s apron to catch his attention. “jinwoo, run for him. top priority.”

“yes ma’am.” jinwoo is tall and gangly, a good few centimeters lankier than taehyung himself. he doesn’t look like he knows what to do with all his limbs, and his voice cracks on the second syllable with a flush.

“thank you,” taehyung offers with a bow. when he rises, she looks marginally appeased, if not any less hassled. “i’ll try to stay out of your way.”

the cook nods curtly, and bustles back into the fray. taehyung braces his palms on the counter and glances over the workstation, notes the baking sugar and pot of honey and

“have you met the prince?” jinwoo asks, as soon as the cook is out of earshot. there are practically stars in his eyes, shoulders hunched as he tries his best to look up at taehyung even from three centimeters above him. taehyung smiles as gently as he can, and reaches for a mixing bowl.

“i have,” he answers, and tries to figure out how to finish. the boy can’t be more than sixteen, has probably never met anyone higher-ranked that seokjin, who knows perfectly well how to charm kitchen staff into giving him anything he likes. “can you get me salt, please?”

jinwoo bolts off. taehyung watches with a suppressed smile as he almost trips over a serving girl with a bowl full of strawberries, and gets a sharp tug on his ear from an older woman who seems to be passing through. he returns with nearly an audible skid, offering out the salt to taehyung like it’s the most important thing he’ll do all day.

“the prince, sunbaenim?” he asks, with all the wide-eyed eagerness taehyung aches to remember feeling. he sighs, and begins to mix for the tart crust he knows jimin prefers.

“he’s very kind,” he says, like he’s trying to remember. “doesn’t like small places. he rode almost all the way here on the biggest stallion i’ve ever seen. he talks to his guard like they’re family.”

from a few stations over, taehyung sees a set of girls a few years older than him straining to catch his every word, their hands never faltering as they crack egg upon egg into a large bowl. jinwoo’s mouth is gaping a little, eyes far-away like he’s trying to imagine the man taehyung is describing in the most abstract way possible.

“how long have you been baking for him?” a tone of wonder, like it’s amazing. taehyung’s heart hurts. he drips water from his fingers and eyes the dough critically, trying to assess the quality of the flour without being rude enough to ask outright.

“about five years,” he replies.

he’d begun experimenting with pastries initially for an ambassador from the neighboring kingdom; they’d been tasked with keeping him in good food and wine for the duration of his stay, and with the slew of banquets and events over the span of those few months, there had been no one except taehyung with enough time to prepare extravagant sweets. and then one morning, hoseok had come to collect the prince’s breakfast and had mentioned that he’d eaten nine of them off the table the previous morning, and his highness was wondering why they weren’t always available—and it had become taehyung’s job, with barely a second thought.

he’d been maybe a year older than jinwoo, when his father had turned to him with a look closer to pride than he’d ever approached before.

“you must be very high-ranked, to be in such demand from him,” jinwoo says, voice tinged with awe.

taehyung stares down at the dough between his fingers, the white flour coating all the way up to his wrists. he fights the urge to clench his hands into fists, to close his eyes and let the words hurt like he knows jinwoo hadn’t intended them too.

“not really,” he says, as lightly as he can manage. “we’re all pretty equal in the palace—like you are here, right? it’s just a kitchen, jinwoo-ah.”

jinwoo practically swoons at the endearment. the dough is ready enough to be chilled, and taehyung beckons him over with his chin until jinwoo is at his side, all fluttering hands and anxious smile.

“we’re going to press this flat. not too hard, okay?”

by the time taehyung had been jinwoo’s age, he’d been in the kitchen for as long as a few of the apprentices half a decade older than him. jinwoo clearly knows his way around the kitchen, but he still seems tentatively afraid to touch the dough. taehyung takes his hands gently, shows him just the right way to shape it into a disk.

“what happens if we do it harder?” the questions, it seems are never ending. this, though, taehyung can handle much better than questions about the prince.

“with less pressure, the crust becomes lighter. almost like it melts on your tongue. we want crust to be less dense for pastries than for bread, too, so it might take a while to learn. and then—” taehyung slides a worn board underneath the dough, lifting it with a practiced hand until it’s settled in the center. “you take this to the cool pantry for about an hour.”

jinwoo takes hold of the board with both hands, and takes off at a slower pace, dodging serving girls and footmen and each person at their station. he watches as jinwoo nudges another boy with his hip, nods down at the dough, beams brightly at whatever his friend says to him.

before he reaches for a bowl of cherries, taehyung takes a moment to rest, and brace his hands against the worn wood of the work table, and feel just a little at home in such an unfamiliar land.

 

 

 

two hours later, the prince’s breakfast is starting to go cold. the manor staff is starting to get anxious, everyone glancing continuously at the tray as the morning ticks later and later. taehyung’s internal clock tells him hoseok is at least fifteen minutes late, which almost never happens. he usually trips through the doorway at home a few minutes after the tray is prepared, each human cog in the castle functioning like clockwork.

when the prince’s breakfast is the last waiting—lord kim’s valet just a bit later than the rest—the cook pins taehyung with sharp eyes and reaches for one of the thin leafs of paper.

“here is where the prince is staying,” she says, shoving it at him when she’s done sketching crudely. “take it to him. he’ll have no complaints under my roof.”

taehyung gapes, and stares blankly at the ornate tray that had looked out of place with all the others, even the lord’s. he has no excuse, though—he’s the only one here familiar with royalty, someone who might be let off easily if the prince were displeased at being woken up. better to stick out the neck of a stranger, taehyung agrees, than one of your own.

he sets the scribbled map against the teapot, and picks up the tray.

the manor, at least, is less complicated than the castle. taehyung had gotten lost a few times on his way to seokjin’s rooms as a teenager, and had ended up in ornate hallways in the east wing with no idea how to get back to anything familiar. the manor has twisting hallways and too many rooms, but it feels more cramped. there’s less room to breathe.

by the time taehyung reaches the heavy door of the guest chambers, he feels like the stone walls are suffocating him. the wood is thick enough that he can’t hear what might be on the other side—whether the prince is awake, or hoseok is already on his way down to the kitchen, or they’re both still asleep, exhausted from the journey.

finally, taehyung straightens his shoulders. the worst that can happen is that hoseok is gone, and he wakes the prince up.

well—that’s not the worst thing. but that hardly bears thinking about, so taehyung sucks in a dusty breath and knocks gently on the door.

thirty seconds later, something slams against the other side, and the door swings open with a brief fumbling of the chain. taehyung steps back, alarmed, as hoseok’s rumpled bedhead sticks out through the crack. his eyes are wide but alert, his shoulder bare.

“oh,” hoseok says, voice rough. then, again, a little louder. “oh! taehyung-ah, come in.”

“wait,” taehyung says, but it’s too late. the door swings open, hoseok’s chest mostly exposed by courtesy of the lacing on his shirt, and he ushers taehyung in with a smile that looks more menacing than welcoming. “i’m just here with breakfast.”

“you can put it down right over there,” hoseok says, instead of taking the tray with his own, empty hands. taehyung glances around before stepping in, makes sure that the prince isn’t anywhere in the lavish sitting room. he makes it halfway across the room, footsteps careful on the plush carpeting, before—”

“hyungie, how many sons does this duke—” the prince cuts off before he finishes, mouth pursed in a little circle that taehyung barely has time to see before he drops his gaze to the floor.

“i forgot to get breakfast,” hoseok says, as cheerful as ever. his arm gently lands over taehyung’s shoulders, careful not to jostle the tray. “taehyung-ah was kind enough to bring it up for us.”

“i’m sorry.” the prince has a frown in his voice, worry laced into his pitch. “here, let me—”

taehyung doesn’t fight when the tray is lifted out of his hands, keeps his eyes on the floor so he sees the way the prince’s trousers are too long for his legs, a thin dark cotton that looks soft to the touch. his feet are bare, his hands warm where they brush taehyung’s skin like a lightning strike. his arms ache after holding the position for so long.

“we’ve been studying,” hoseok says, like he’s letting taehyung in on a secret. in the corner of his vision, taehyung watches the prince set down a small leather-bound notebook, watches him settle onto the floor with his legs crossed in front of the low table. taehyung tries to dig in his heels as hoseok gently pushes him forward, toward the table and the food and the prince.

taehyung can’t make himself look away, as he watches the prince pick up the crude map and smile lightly, before smoothing it down and pouring a cup of tea.

“here,” the prince says. he offers it out, ducking his head to smile up at taehyung with sleepy eyes and rumpled hair, and that’s what breaks him.

hoseok makes a small noise when taehyung ducks out from under his arm. muted apologies fall from his lips, heart aching as it pounds against his ribs. when he risks a glance up, one hand pulling open the door to his chambers, taehyung sees the prince’s hand still outstretched, the small, confused pout on his lips.

the door shuts behind him, and taehyung stares down at his own hands and wills them to stop trembling.

for a moment, he relearns how to breathe outside the prince’s chamber door. the thrum of his heart fades away slowly, until the silence of the stone walls echoes quietly around him.

until, through the wood, taehyung hears the murmur of voices.

“you’re the crown prince,” hoseok is saying, muffled but loud enough to be audible. “you’re scary, jimin-ah.”

“i know, but—have i said something to him? is there anything i can do?”

“he hasn’t mentioned anything to me,” hoseok says, just a little softer this time. taehyung’s stomach twists; he stares blankly at the floor, and listens for anything that might give him away. “come on, min, what were you asking about that duke?”

“oh.” it sounds smaller, almost discouraged. “i just—i was wondering about his sons. one of them is the right age, i think. at the ball—he never asked to call me hyung.”

“hey, we’ll figure it out,” hoseok murmurs. taehyung swallows down an ugly knot in his throat, tries not to remember the pout on the prince’s face, the way he’d looked just a little lost holding out the cup of tea.

“what if he doesn’t even want—?”

“don’t be ridiculous.” there’s something forced about hoseok’s cheer, even through the door. taehyung takes one quiet step away, half-worn shoes soft on the cold stones, but stops before he can get too far. “seokjin said he’d be here. trust that, at least. okay?”

silence. taehyung imagines a sigh, a nod, hoseok’s hand carding through the prince’s hair like it had been at the riverbank.

he doesn’t stick around to hear jimin’s answer.

 

 

 

dinner that night is more of a banquet than taehyung had expected. after a day of rest, the kim estate is welcoming the crown prince into its gates with more extravagance than its kitchen staff has seen in years.

“this is so cool,” taehyung overhears jinwoo whispering to one of his friends, as he chops onions so quickly he’s blinking tears out of his eyes. it’s the first time taehyung has been able to take a breath in what feels like hours, well into the afternoon, after making five dozen meat buns and prepping pies to go into the furnace for the final course. the chef is standing over three kitchen girls tending to three pots of soups half as tall as they are. the plentiful leftovers will be stored, he knows—soup is easy, and cheap, and most of it will end up in the servants’ bowls with the days-old bread that never makes it to a titled stomach.

“my brother says the royals eat with gold utensils,” jinwoo’s friend says. his eyes are just as wide, just as earnest, but his smile cracks into something a little more playful when jinwoo’s elbow finds his ribs.

“the closest thing your brother’s ever seen to a royal is the fattest pig in the yard.”

“don’t talk about yourself like that, jinwoo-hyung! i think you’re lovely.”

taehyung can’t stifle the laughter that leaks out of him as he listens to the playful jibing, the back-and-forth that reminds him so much of jeongyu, on his good days. the small of his back rests a little uncomfortably against the edge of the counter, but takes enough of his weight off his aching feet to relieve him a little.

he wonders if jeongyu has taken over his duties, or if he’s still being relegated to clean-up and knifework. he knows—how much it must sting, to watch and watch and never be able to take anyone’s place. when they’d been younger, things between them had been easier; before taehyung had stepped up to fill the suddenly empty space beside their father.

as the serving girls take each dish up to the banquet, taehyung takes his time double-checking the slow brown of pie crust, rotating the cheap tins with a wet cloth wrapped around his hands, listening to the idle chatter of the staff as they slowly start to clean up the hectic mess. a few doors down the cramped hallway, the servants’ table is being set with leftover bread and steaming bowls of the soup that’s now been left to simmer, the last good cuts of meat stripped of fat and set aside for the valets and ladies’ maids after the banquet.

“come on, hyungnim,” jinwoo urges, after taehyung has pulled out each pie and garnished it and spent far too long wondering if the prince will know who made is, if he’ll be too busy speaking to the sons of dukes to try a slice. “you’ll miss dinner.”

taehyung lets himself be dragged away, and collapses onto a rough bench next to sungwoon as soon as he reaches the dining room.

“taehyung!” sungwoon says, cheerfully enough that taehyung glances into his cup to see how much of the wine he’s drained. “our favorite chef.”

“not a chef,” taehyung corrects through a smile. jaebum leans forward with a wave, and surreptitiously switches out sungwoon’s glass for one filled with water. “it’s good to see you again.”

“you won’t be dragged off by a lordling again tonight, right?” sungwoon teases. “we have to get you drunk, really. you’ve been getting under jiminie’s skin like no one i’ve ever seen.”

“except his dashing mystery boy,” jaebum sighs. taehyung suppresses a flinch, tries to ignore the subtle itch under his skin.

“i don’t like wine,” he tries to protest, “and why are you happy about me bothering the prince?”

“we like to see jimin squirm a little sometimes,” jaebum replies, like it should be obvious. “i love the kid to death, but he’s so cute when he’s worked up.”

“and you’re cute too.” sungwoon smiles helpfully, and holds up a cup to taehyung’s lips. “too cute to be sober on a banquet night.”

taehyung rolls his eyes, but takes a small sip. it’s—still disgusting, but not exactly the bitter wine he’d expected. there’s barely a sweetness, a little like honey, that lingers on his tongue sticky and unfamiliar. it’s just enough to stop him from spitting it out, so he swallows with a wince and accepts sungwoon’s saccharine praise, like he’s a puppy who’s performed his first trick.

“very good,” jaebum says, clapping his hands together as he reaches for a bowl of soup. “now we just have to get you loosened up enough to dance.”

 

 

 

they don’t manage to get taehyung to dance, but he drinks just enough that he wakes up in the middle of the night with the memory of a headache pinched behind his eyes, and lies staring up at the ceiling until he accepts that he won’t be sleeping again.

even at night, the palace is always bustling with noise. there’s always some kind of party going on, some small team of servants cleaning or preparing or ushering their masters to bed; there’s always murmuring from the living quarters in the south wing, staff moving to and from and having hushed conversations in the corridors. after years of the constants of noise and company, the silence of the kim’s manor feels strange and unwelcome. taehyung lies on his back for a long while, straining to hear even the scratching of a mouse in the walls, until the cold from the stone walls has seeped in through the warmth of his blankets enough that it’s become unbearable.

and so he makes his way to the kitchen, guided by a fat, short candle in its aluminum tray. he’s dressed for the day, but wrapped in a faded yellow blanket to ward off the drafts in the halls. it’s still thin, a hole worn in one of the corners, but taehyung clutches it as he pushes open the heavy wood door, careful not to let it too near the candle.

the kitchen is empty. taehyung squints into the utter darkness, catches the barest sliver of moonlight through the window by the lower fires. the candle’s light is barely enough to see by, but he makes do as he steps in deeper, not bothering to shut the heavy door behind him.

this pantry, like every part of the manor, is smaller than the one he’s used to. taehyung takes a moment for careful inventory before he gathers what he needs in a heavy wooden bowl—vanilla, honey, brown sugar, flour. tucked high into a corner he finds cinnamon sticks, carefully wrapped in wax paper, next to a small pot of powdered chocolate.

for a few moments, taehyung takes his time spreading out the ingredients, flouring the cold stone counter, thinking through the recipe he’d modified from one written in the books at home. he doesn’t make it as often as he’d used to, after his father had complained of the mess, and the amount of sugar taehyung had been using.

the candlelight isn’t easy to work in. taehyung squints for long moments at the hand-scrawled labels on the bags of flour and sugar, before crouching down and lighting up one of the lower fires. he hangs a pot of milk above it to warm, adds more than the recipe calls for to the pot just for something to sip as he waits for the dough to rise.

alone in the kitchen, left to his own devices as his body falls into the familiar rhythm, taehyung lets his mind drift to the quiet place it goes when he doesn’t have to worry. when his father isn’t breathing down his back, when jeongyu hasn’t snapped at him before sulking back to his chores. it’s nice, he remembers, to let himself do what he’s good at. what he loves, most of the time.

it’s so easy, in fact, that he doesn’t notice anything has changed until he hears the heavy creaking of the door on its hinges.

taehyung jerks around, eyes wide, half-expecting the cook or a scullery maid or even maybe namjoon, but—

the prince stares at him, eyes wide in the low light of the cooking fire, frozen halfway through the door like he’s done something wrong by disturbing the silence.

“i’m so sorry,” the prince whispers, after a long moment. his shoulder slump as he edges a little more into the kitchen, though the space he keeps between them makes it difficult to hear. it might be a trick of the light, but—taehyung swears he sees heavy bags under the prince’s eyes, half-hidden under the messy swoop of his bangs. “the door was open, i was just wandering. i can go, if you’re—?”

taehyung closes his mouth, half-open in shock. he wipes his hands, sticky with dough, on his apron.

“stay,” he offers, before he really thinks about it, before he remembers to lighten his voice. the prince blinks, curls his fingers around the wood of the door. there might be a smile tugging at the corner of his lips.

he steps in carefully. the kitchen has warmed a few degrees from the fire, but the prince’s fingers still twitch toward the discarded blanket on the large table at the center of the room, that taehyung had left in favor of the muddy white apron hanging with its fellows behind the door. taehyung watches, breathes in carefully the familiar sugar and cinnamon of the dough as the prince wraps the blanket around his shoulders, sits gingerly on top of the table like he’s waiting to be kicked out.

“sorry,” he murmurs again. “i just—couldn’t sleep.”

taehyung shakes his head, smiles as much as he can through roiling anxiety. the prince fidgets with his fingers at the hole in the blanket’s corner, looking around the darkened kitchen like he’s never seen anything quite like it. taehyung takes a breath, trying to slip back into the quiet place where his fingers don’t shake, where he knows who he is. in front of jimin, that boundary always seems to blur.

slowly, taehyung turns back to his work. the dough is almost ready to be set, and taehyung digs his fingers back in until it’s just the right consistency, tacky and sticky against his fingers. he can feel the prince watching him, in the absence of anything else to do, but—in the kitchen, like this, it doesn’t bother him as much as he’d thought. by the time he’s wringing out a towel, cool and damp, to spread over the mixing bowl, taehyung has almost forgotten he’s being watched at all.

until he turns back to the table, breathing steadily, and meets the prince’s eyes again. his head is tilted, lips parted slightly. he’s still soft from sleep, taehyung notices, a fabric crease on one of his cheeks only mostly faded. he smiles, a little, when taehyung turns to him.

taehyung smiles back, before he can stop himself. the lower hearth crackles, tearing his eyes away to the fire and the pot that hangs over it.

the prince blinks slowly as taehyung steps away, vanishing back into the pantry with his foolish heart pounding loud in his ears. the ingredients are easy enough to grab with the help of the wooden stool in the corner, and taehyung can only hope that the cook won’t mind having to replace her most expensive chocolate, when he tells her what he’d used it for.

when he returns, the prince seems reluctant to break the silence. from this angle, taehyung can see the prince watching him as he moves, as he taps in cocoa powder and searches the utensils hanging from the racks until he finds the whisk he’s looking for, slowly stirring in chunks of bitter chocolate and cream and sugar and just a hint of vanilla, until the brew is a creamy brown and steaming and even taehyung’s stomach is rumbling its agreement.

taehyung ladles the hot chocolate into a mug, and offers it out silently. the prince—jimin, jimin—looks up with wide eyes, one crooked tooth peeking out from behind his upper lip.

“oh,” jimin says. in the light from the hearth, taehyung can just barely make out the beginnings of a blush. and then, a little less softly: “oh, gods, you didn’t—”

“i wanted to,” taehyung says, and immediately wants to sink into the earth for interrupting. but jimin’s eyebrows are pinched in what might be guilt, so he shudders off the instinctive fear, and keeps talking. “you just—it’s cold, and you couldn’t sleep, so...”

jimin looks down, into the swirling darkness of his heavy glazed mug, and smiles.

“thank you,” he says. looks up again, ducks his head to try and meet taehyung’s eyes through the thick hair that falls in his face. taehyung shrinks away from his gaze, braces both hands on the counter behind him, feels his own cheeks warm in sympathy or embarrassment. “really, taehyung. thank you.”

taehyung shakes his head, but doesn’t try to fight off his smile. jimin settles back onto the table, wraps both hands around his mug as if he’s trying to leech out all the warmth as he takes his first sip. taehyung watches for long enough that he sees jimin’s widened eyes, the careful way he sips again, trying not to burn his tongue, before he turns back to his work.

this time, he’s relaxed enough that he barely cares about the eyes on his back. he hears jimin shift a little on the table as he starts to roll out the dough, spreading cinnamon and sugar and melted butter over it as he rolls it and cuts it and shapes it carefully on a banged-up flat tray. out of the corner of his eye he can see the way jimin has moved to watch, draining his mug slowly as taehyung works with practiced familiarity, a little thrilled and a little delighted of his audience.

if the ballroom had been jimin’s territory, somewhere he’d felt as comfortable as breathing, then the kitchen belongs to taehyung. and somehow, jimin doesn’t feel out of place.

after the first pan comes out of the oven, jimin stands up quietly, takes a few steps toward the counter. the blanket is tight around his shoulders, mug empty on the work table. he peers at the finished product curiously, small swirled loaves of bread full of enough sugar to dampen taehyung’s mouth with desire.

“are these for me?” he asks quietly. from a few paces away, busy organizing the ingredients for honey-dark bread, taehyung nods. “will you take one?”

taehyung pauses. jimin should know, by now, that it’s forbidden. he knows hoseok had told him on the road, at least, and that it had only sharpened the stubborn set of jimin’s jaw.

“if you ask me to.” taehyung doesn’t look up from the counter, the dough slowly coming together under his palms.

jimin’s fingers drift down delicately, until they brush the fine layer of flour that rests on the cool stone.

“please,” he says, quiet enough that it barely disturbs the air. taehyung glances up through the dark fall of his hair, at the way the moonlight softens jimin, at the gentle messiness of the moment. no hint of the polish of the ball, or the transience of the road. just—a boy, a few months older than taehyung, who hadn’t been able to sleep.

“it would be my honor,” taehyung murmurs. jimin looks up; their eyes meet, for the fraction of a second taehyung allows.

jimin retreats, and taehyung glares halfheartedly down at his bowl until he shakes himself back into focus. the sounds of the earliest risers slowly stirring beyond the heavy door lulls him back into the ease of the work, the not-quite-gentle knead of the dough. he doesn’t turn back until he’s satisfied, driven more by the desire to see it through, see it right, see the look on jimin’s face as he watches taehyung’s shoulders shift under the thin fabric of his shirt.

when he finally turns around, taehyung sees that the only thing the prince has left behind is the yellow blanket, folded into a neat square at the edge of the table.

 

 

 

that morning, taehyung sends the prince’s breakfast up with two empty mugs, and the last of the hot chocolate re-heated to steaming. hoseok takes the lid off the pot and takes a deep breath in, sagging in on himself with a groan.

“that’s so good,” he says, drawn out on an indecent noise that has taehyung staring pointedly out the window. “what inspired this, huh?”

“nothing,” taehyung replies. it comes out a little defensive, but—he knows that namjoon has shared sleeping quarters with seokjin since he was appointed; that if jimin had been wandering the manor alone, he must have deliberately avoided having hoseok by his side. “i can keep it down here, if you want.”

“no!” hoseok bodily puts himself between himself and the breakfast tray, clutching at his chest like he’s been mortally wounded. “no, absolutely not. keep your secrets, taehyung-ah.”

taehyung smiles down at his flour-caked fingers when hoseok finally gathers up the tray with a heaving sigh, and glances down at the arrangement of cinnamon buns. his lips have ticked up just enough to press into the dimples above his mouth.

“these are jimin’s favorites, you know?”

taehyung keeps his eyes on his hands, and very carefully shrugs one shoulder. he didn’t know, but—it would make sense. the prince has a famous sweet tooth, one he isn’t ashamed to cater to. it’s his job, after all. he remembers the way the dough had practically melted on his tongue as he’d taken a bite, the tray near-fresh from the oven, just before the rest of the kitchen staff had started to swarm in.

“i’ll remember that,” he replies carefully. “you should go, before those cool too much.”

hoseok looks at him, a careful inspection that has taehyung fighting to keep still, wishing he had something to do with his hands.

“he invited a few nobles to lunch with him today,” hoseok finally says. “all about your age, i think.”

taehyung sets his jaw, stands up a little straighter. he should be showing more respect, with hoseok older and higher ranked and carrying taehyung’s future in his palm, but there’s something a little hot flickering in his chest, something that refuses to go away no matter how hard he tries to shut it down.

“i hope he enjoys their company.” short, as polite as he can make it. he doesn’t think back to the fingerprints in the flour he hadn’t had the heart to wipe away, until jinwoo had disturbed them with his own fumbling attempts at kneading the dough taehyung had smacked in front of him. doesn’t think that the prince knows, now, where to find him. it’s not as awful a thought as it should be.

“hmm,” hoseok says. he stuffs a bun between his teeth, shifts the weight of the platter between his hands, gives taehyung a pointed look that he probably thinks is much more decipherable than it actually is.

taehyung watches him go, the taste of cinnamon still half-melted on his tongue.

 

 

 

when taheyung gets the summons for lunch, he thinks it must be a joke.

“not a joke,” namjoon says, as he pushes taehyung around by the shoulders so he can untie his apron himself. “seokjin wants you to meet his fiancé, taehyung, i hardly think that’s unreasonable.”

“not while i’m wearing this,” taehyung hisses back. there’s flour dusting his shirt above where the apron begins, there’s a patched hole in the outer thigh of his pants that couldn’t be more obvious if he’d tried. he can feel the eyes of the staff on him, a stranger in their midst, someone at their level and yet so often paraded in front of nobility. “hyung, you can’t be serious.”

“i’ll give you something of mine.”

“that’s not the problem,” taehyung finally says, voice tight in his throat. namjoon is vouching for min yoongi, but—in all their past experiences with seokjin’s titled friends and acquaintances, he’s rarely been welcomed with open arms as a server, much less as a friend. “i know he means well, but—”

“argue with me upstairs,” namjoon breaks in, hands gentle on taehyung’s shoulders. “come on, tae-ah. take a break for us.”

it’s not like he has much of a choice. taehyung sags, dragging a hand down his face as he turns to jinwoo, who—to his credit—is pretending to look incredibly disinterested in the conversation.

“if hoseok needs anything, get it for him,” he instructs. jinwoo’s eyes go wide, the knife in his hand stilling as he glances around, like taehyung would possibly be talking to anyone else. “anything at all, understand?”

“yes, hyungnim,” jinwoo stutters out. namjoon muffles a laugh into his elbow, disguised passably as a cough. taehyung pastes on a smile, and flicks him nastily on the shoulder.

“i am respectable,” he whispers viciously, as soon as they’re out of hearing range from the kitchen.

namjoon pats his shoulder in consolation, and ushers him quickly to seokjin’s quarters with a hand on his lower back.

“lord kim doesn’t really care what we do,” is namjoon’s answer when taehyung asks why the happy couple won’t be dining with their families. “he’s too busy talking up trade deals with yoongi’s father, and stressing about how clean everything has to be for the prince’s visit.”

“i doubt the prince cares,” taehyung says, dubiously holding up one of namjoon’s shirts up against his front. “he got his boots so dirty our second day on the road that hoseok wouldn’t even clean them for him. made him do it himself.”

the guards had jeered good-naturedly, and jimin had laughed along with them, wine flushing his cheeks along with light from the campfire. he’d offered to polish anyone’s, if they could pin him for more than five seconds, and only hoseok had managed it. beyond that, though, the prince doesn’t seem like someone too preoccupied with the cleanliness of a manor.

“well, it keeps him off seokjin’s back, at least.” namjoon swaps out the shirt in taehyung’s hand for another; something dark red and soft enough that taehyung is loathe to let his fingers drop from the sleeve. it’s nothing like the silks he’d borrowed for the ball, that had felt like being swaddled in rainfall, but it’s nicer than anything he’d work the kitchens in. “that’s a nice color on you.”

“flatterer,” taehyung mumbles, but his shirt is already halfway above his head.

they’re supposed to be meeting seokjin in one of the smaller parlors scattered around the manor; one of many, out of the way enough that no one should come stumbling in to ask uncomfortable questions.

“it’s only the five of us,” namjoon says, like that’s supposed to make taehyung feel any better. he counts off on his fingers, frowns, counts one more time just to make sure.

“five?”

namjoon avoids his gaze. he picks up his pace just a little, but his legs aren’t longer than taehyung’s anymore, and he should know better than to think he can outpace him. “you, me, jin, yoongi, and yoongi’s younger cousin.”

taehyung squints at the vague blush under namjoon’s tan skin, would cross his arms and tease like a child if it wouldn’t have him accidentally sprawling down one of the four-step staircases that litter the hallways. he doesn’t have the time to say anything, since before he’s really ready namjoon raps lightly on one of the doors—the servant’s entrance, taehyung notes carefully—and holds it open with a feigned bow.

“after you,” he says, over-the-top the way they used to, while shoving each other into the dirt on their way into market.

taehyung rolls his eyes, and steps in.

 

 

 

yoongi turns out to be perfectly pleasant, until seokjin walks into the room. he bows shortly to the both of them, the wide-eyed boy loitering behind him hastily bending straight from the waist, with much more respect than taehyung thinks is probably warranted.

“jeon jeongguk,” he introduces himself, and almost goes to bow again before he snaps upright, a little pink in the cheeks. taehyung bites back a smile and bows himself. “you’re hyung’s friend, from the palace?”

“kim taehyung.” namjoon’s hand is a solid anchor at the dip of his spine, keeping taehyung grounded against the sharpness of yoongi’s gaze. it feels like it should be the other way around—taehyung has known seokjin for years longer, has been his friend for half their lives at least, but against min yoongi’s gaze he has no ground to stand on.

seokjin ducks into the room soon enough that the silence doesn’t linger, slamming the door shut on a footman that looks both annoyed and relieved in equal measure.

“i have arrived,” seokjin announces, like they’ve all been waiting with bated breath. “you can applaud now.”

taehyung crosses his arms over his chest. namjoon sweeps into the most ostentatious bow taehyung has ever seen, so low that he can practically hear the bones of namjoon’s spine creaking in agony. only jeongguk applauds, looking healthily afraid of the consequences. taehyung bites back a laugh, tries to rationalize that not everyone had grown up with seokjin; not everyone knows him well enough to only treat him seriously when a life is on the line.

yoongi, however, doesn’t even raise an eyebrow when seokjin stumbles over in mock-agony, swooning into his arms with one hand pressed to his forehead.

“only you understand me, jeongguk-ah,” he wails. “my fiancé will let me die in his arms, but won’t applaud my entrance.”

“do something worth applauding,” yoongi says, dry enough that taehyung almost believes him, and seokjin gasps in such exaggerated shock that he almost topples to the floor. jeongguk scrambles to stabilize him, and taehyung shakes his head at the shameless pandering, and drags namjoon over to take a seat at the table.

“see?” namjoon mutters under his breath. “nothing to worry about.”

and, mostly, he’s right. lunch is perfectly pleasant. yoongi asks all the right questions, and jeongguk seems genuinely curious about taehyung’s work, and seokjin keeps everything light enough that the awkwardness of dining with strange nobility never really settles into the gaps between sentences.

“i’m barely noble,” jeongguk mutters to taehyung, as he pulls another hearty helping of noodles onto his plate. “i’m the youngest son of a youngest son.”

“so you’re just rich,” taehyung clarifies, and steals a carrot off his plate. jeongguk pouts; on the other side of the table, namjoon deliberately averts his eyes.

“i guess.” it’s incredible how quickly jeongguk scarfs down food, fingers reaching for another roll even as he’s still finishing his noodles. “i’ve been apprenticing with my father’s apothecary, though. he didn’t think it was proper, but—it’s interesting. i’m learning a lot.”

“so you can teach me how to poison yoongi and steal his fortune?” seokjin leans forward, both elbows on the table. “tell me more, jeongguk-ah.”

“that’s assuming i don’t steal your fortune first.” yoongi spears a cut of meat with his fork, gesturing with it before stuffing the whole thing in his mouth. seokjin turns to him, and taehyung reels at the absolutely besotted look on his face, the way he slings one thigh over yoongi’s lap and tugs yoongi’s head to his chest in a tender embrace. taehyung knows seokjin’s body language enough to tell that much of it is an act, but—he also knows him well enough to tell that much of it isn’t.

and taehyung doesn’t know yoongi at all, but with the gentle way his fingers stroke through seokjin’s hair when he pulls away, the goofy little smile on his face at seokjin’s ever-increasing dramaticisms, well.

he passes, taehyung supposes. he’s heard horror stories of nobility with arranged marriages, but he trusts seokjin to know what’s best for him. and he trusts yoongi, at least to some extent, from everything he’s heard before this.

told you, namjoon mouths across the table. taehyung rolls his eyes, but doesn’t bother hiding his smile.

taehyung gets a dirty look from the cook when he returns to the kitchen, a few minutes after he thinks the servants’ lunch must have ended. there’s not too much he can even do, at this point; this kitchen runs as smoothly as the one he’d left behind, with each person’s role formed from habit and years of experience. dinner is mostly cooking, and it’s not that taehyung can’t cook, it’s just—he’s better at baking. it’s become his place, after long years of work.

there’s not much to do, other than prepping for dessert, so taehyung ducks away as soon as he’s finished. seokjin had mentioned meeting with aunts this afternoon, and namjoon had rolled his eyes in the subtle way that means taehyung finds him in seokjin’s empty chambers, the sheets to the luxurious bed stripped and ready for washing.

“it’s better than staying in the room while hyung gets cooed over by old ladies,” namjoon mutters. he shoves an armful of blankets into taehyung’s arms without even asking, and starts the perilous journey down the stairs.

“disgusting,” taehyung agrees, with the kind of relieved cheer that comes with having something to do.

they make it to the laundry room without taehyung tripping face-first down the stairs, which is really the only thing that matters to him. namjoon gets a raised eyebrow from the laundress as he dumps seokjin’s sheets in a corner, and a few appreciative stares from the girls folding piles of clothes at the long tables against the wall.

“namjoon-ah, who’s your friend?” one of them calls. the girl next to her smacks her shoulder, and the entire room bursts out in giggles, and taehyung buries his face in his newly empty hands and collapses into namjoon’s chest.

“off limits,” namjoon says back, to a small chorus of disappointed groans. taehyung lets his legs go limp, forces namjoon to hook his arms under his shoulders and practically drag him out of the laundry room, giggling under his breath all the way. “come on, taehyung-ah, you’re handsome.”

“stop,” taehyung moans, like it’s causing him real pain. “why would you do that to me. and why did you say i’m off limits?”

“well.” namjoon pushes taehyung off him, holds his hands up innocently. “i mean—you know we’re still holding out hope for you.”

taehyung stares. namjoon shrugs.

“i’m just saying. i talked to hoseok yesterday, and he had some interesting things to say.”

taehyung stares down at the uneven stones of the floor. they’re in the lower levels of the manor, now, enough that the hallways are lit by oil lamps, the shadows long and strange along namjoon’s face. taehyung abruptly doesn’t want to hear what hoseok had to say; doesn’t want to know what namjoon thinks the prince wants from him.

“i’m trying,” he says, instead of snapping at namjoon to back off, to leave him to his own quiet confusion and the fond little thing curled up in his chest whenever he thinks back to the ball, to the journey, to the prince’s hands curled tight around the roughly-made mug in the dark of night. “just—it needs to be me, okay? i don’t want anything happening because hoseok said something, or jin-hyung made a promise i can’t keep.”

namjoon’s hand, when it rests against the side of taehyung’s neck, is gentle.

“i’m sorry,” namjoon says, voice a little rougher. “it’s—it’s hard, right?”

when he tries for a smile, it doesn’t feel forced. not when he remembers the way namjoon’s hands had fidgeted under the table during lunch, how he’d bitten back fond smiles at jeongguk’s anxious conversation. he glances at the door just a few feet away; namjoon’s eyes follow his, and he breathes out a laugh through a sheepish grin.

“right,” he mumbles. taehyung shakes his head, shakes his hair back into his eyes. the laundry girls have probably heard every word, but it’s not like he’s in any place to begrudge them their gossip.

“come on, hyung,” taehyung sighs. he tucks an arm around namjoon’s waist as they start back up the stairs, a little too broad for the narrow walls that crush them in. “i’ll steal you a pork bun before dinner.”

“i knew you were my favorite for a reason,” namjoon replies, and follows taehyung up, easy as anything.

 

 

 

that night, taehyung slips out of the hall after dinner, before he can get roped into anything too obnoxious. the closer the wedding gets, the more tightly wound everyone seems; the more energy bounces off the walls when scullery maids and footmen and kitchen boys alike are all crowded in to eat.

at home, the kitchen staff eats together, in a hall about this size. they send platters of food off to other halls, where other classes of servants eat, but they stay separate. when a valet comes to the kitchen for his master’s food, they bow in respect. when the stewardess storms in searching for a maid who snuck off to gossip with her sister, taehyung’s father offers his apologies.

“see you tomorrow,” sungwoon calls, and pulls taehyung in for a quick embrace before he can escape. taehyung smiles back, a little shaky, and follows the shaky oil lamps back to his borrowed bedroom.

as he lies on the hay-stuffed bed and lets the candles burn down to their wicks, taehyung thinks about the prince. he must disguise exhaustion well, he thinks, to be so familiar with wandering at night. he must work as hard as taehyung does, albeit at different things. even seokjin has had to learn history, and literature, and the name of every noble in the country, and he’s the youngest son of a minor lord. taehyung can’t imagine the minutia that stuffs the prince’s day.

he wonders if it’s the minutiae that keeps the prince up at night, wonders if maybe it could be the recollection of a chandelier-lit ball and the feathered masks that had floated by them and the gentle silk-gloved hands on his waist—

taehyung wonders himself into a quiet sleep, and wakes up long before the first rooster calls.

at first, he tries to tug the blanket up to his chin and roll back over, for what his body is telling him should be two more hours of sleep. there’s no light in the room; there’s a half-remembered hint of smoke in the air from when the candles must have burned themselves out. taehyung sits up in bed, and stares at the dull sliver of light underneath his door, and sighs.

he makes his way to the kitchen clutching onto the same yellow blanket, dragging one hand along the wall in the absence of a candle. tonight, taehyung doesn’t wait to start one of the lower fires, needing the light more than anything, but he measures out tea leaves and sets out water to boil almost as an afterthought. the tea is cheap and bitter, but—the cook won’t begrudge the prince some sugar, taehyung is sure.

taehyung tugs out the heavy bags of flour, and chops pears into thin slices as slowly as the low light requires, and waits.

the door creaks open before taehyung’s knife even begins to still.

“oh,” the prince says, quiet, like he hadn’t expected it. taehyung finishes with the first pear, slides the slices to the corner of the wooden board. he reaches up to fix his hair, to drag it in front of his eyes no matter how difficult it makes baking. “may i?”

taehyung doesn’t answer. he steps over to the fire instead, the hearth set deeper into the wall, and pours hot water over the tea leaves. the ceramic lid of the teapot makes a quiet sound as he rests it over the top, before he walks it over to the work table. the nights are cold, even in the late spring, and he hesitates for a moment before he removes his hand, letting the towel he’d used pool on the table.

“you really didn’t have to,” the prince says. he’s shut the door behind himself, ducking underneath hanging pots and spoons as he steps toward the table. his fingers brush over the blanket, eyes darting between taehyung and the teapot, as taehyung reaches for a cup.

“i wanted to.” it’s almost a whisper, a little hoarse. taehyung feels ridiculous trying to pitch his voice up, but there are barely any other options. the prince’s brow creases at his low tone, his lips purse out in a little pout that tightens something in taehyung throat.

“will you have some?” this time, jimin’s voice is quiet. his consonants hiss a little as he speaks so softly it aches, voice as sweet as the hot chocolate taehyung had made him last night. “please.”

taehyung’s hand hesitates. he’s reaching for the knife again, one pear left to be sliced. at jimin’s words, though, he stops. no one but valets and ladies’ maids eat with their nobles alone, and even then it’s not really—not all of them. taehyung’s heard enough gossip around the palace to know that the king and his valet are the pinnacle of propriety, that the king’s valet eats alone in his chambers rather than with the stewardess and chancellors.

somehow, he doesn’t think hoseok ever eats alone.

the mug taehyung pulls down is a little rougher, even by a servant’s standards. the one he’d set out for jimin is sparsely painted, fine white detail along the upper edge, where this is plain. there’s a chip on the lip and a small scuff along the side, but it’s serviceable, and taehyung doesn’t bother searching for another. he sets it down next to the teapot, and doesn’t look up to see whether jimin is smiling.

he chops the second pear as they wait, and pours the tea, and hesitates for longer than he should before stirring sugar into both cups.

“are you always up this early?” jimin asks. the blanket is draped around his shoulders now, his cup hugged close to his chest as he waits for it to cool enough to drink. taehyung strokes his thumb along the crack in the stoneware. he’d had a friend as a child who’d been a runner for one of the potters strewn around the palace grounds, is always the one now to make deliveries of fresh tableware to the back entrance. the last time he’d come, he’d pointed out his own signature on the bottom of a set of bowls.

“not always,” taehyung finally hums out. jimin’s eyebrows, sharp slashes that somehow make him a little less delicate, a little more real, draw tight together. “i don’t think i sleep well here.”

“oh.” jimin relaxes a little. he tugs a bit on the front of his sleep shirt, a milky white under faded yellow. “me too.”

the tea is sweet enough from the sugar that taehyung wants to drink it all in one draft, but he makes himself set the cup down next to the cutting board, to begin making the pastry sheets. he mixes the flour and salt before he sets the mix aside, and steps into the cool pantry for one of the covered plates of butter from the day before.

“may i watch?” jimin asks, still in that quiet little voice, when taehyung starts to cut the butter into slivers.

his knife pauses. taehyung’s back is mostly blocking his work from view, so he nods and expects jimin to move down the table, to observe from a distance, but—

jimin walks toward the counter, and finds an empty spot where he doesn’t disturb any ingredients in the net taehyung has cast out around himself, and perches himself on the cool stone with wide eyes and barely-parted lips.

“is this okay?”

he asks too many questions, taehyung thinks, for the crown prince of a country. it makes him dizzy.

“of course,” taehyung whispers, and jimin smiles like they’re sharing a secret.

this is the opposite of a ballroom. taehyung is back in his coarse white shirt, the dark apron layered over it; jimin is dressed down in his sleepclothes, like he plans to go back to bed before his breakfast is brought up. there are no prying eyes, no hushed whispers. jimin watches as taehyung tosses slivers of butter into the bowl, as he mixes it until the dough comes together like it’s supposed to.

there are rules to baking that taehyung knows by heart. knows as well as his way around the palace grounds, as well as the manners his father had forced into him and seokjin had done his best to force out every summer.

“how do you remember all this?” jimin blurts, as taehyung flattens the dough into a gentle disk, lip caught between his teeth. he presses a china plate on top of it, moves the board to the side as he reaches for the filling ingredients; it’s cold enough in the kitchen that he won’t need the cool pantry to let the dough set. he pauses, and pushes a small pear slice down the counter, waits for short fingers to pick it up tentatively.

“practice,” he replies. “i do it most days.”

“it’s always been you? ever since the beginning?”

taehyung squints into his mixing bowl. it’s hard to see through his hair, in only the low light. he adds in an extra quick drizzle of honey, because he can. he hums in the back of his throat, doesn’t let his hands falter no matter what he hears.

“wow.” jimin’s voice is so soft, taehyung thinks. he wants to lie down and listen until the sun rises and sets and rises all over again. “that’s incredible.”

“it’s my job,” taehyung whispers. his hands are sticky with the pastry filling, cinnamon and honey sticking to the pads of his fingers. he wipes them off on the edge of the bowl as much he can, before sliding it back away.

there’s a delicate rhythm to the way he works, one that feels a little different away from the bustling crowd of the palace kitchen. there, someone is always watching him; his father as he slaps bread dough down on the counter, jeongyu as he scrubs pans and slices meats and makes sure pots don’t boil over. there, it feels like an assessment.

when taehyung turns his head, just enough to see, jimin doesn’t look judgmental. it’s not an assessment of taehyung’s skill; there’s more curiosity on his face than anything, maybe a little bit of slack-jawed awe. it’s—humbling. that the muscle memory so familiar to taehyung can be something for his prince to marvel at. he’s still taking slow sips from his mug, huddled into himself just a little, but tonight he doesn’t look so uncertain. taehyung’s implicit welcome, the kitchen open for the second night in a row.

“incredible,” jimin says again. taehyung stares down at the pastry, at the intricate folds and white smears of butter as he goes.

taehyung smiles, just a little.

this time, when jimin slips out the door of the kitchen with a gentle bow, taehyung watches him go.

“good night,” jimin offers. his fingers are curled around the wood of the door, taehyung’s blanket once again neatly folded and tucked into a corner to be taken back to his room later. taehyung turns, keeping his peripheral vision on the pastries browning in the oven.

“good morning,” he replies, more surely than he’s spoken to jimin since—since maybe the masquerade. jimin breaks out in a smile that hides his eyes in his cheeks, and ducks his head behind the door.

“good morning, taehyung-ssi.”

that morning, when jimin leaves, taehyung knows without a doubt that he’ll be back.


hours later, taehyung brings seokjin his breakfast. he thinks mostly it’s an excuse, one that brings him up to see namjoon and seokjin for at least an hour or so a day as the preparations for the wedding slowly wind tighter and more extravagant with every passing day.

“it’s scary,” seokjin mumbles, through a mouthful of the turnover taehyung had made with the prince’s eyes on him. “my father’s never paid me this much attention in my life.”

they’re sprawled on seokjin’s bed, the three of them, taehyung’s head pillowed on namjoon’s thigh and his leg slung over seokjin’s shoulder. taehyung blinks up at the ceiling, trying to remember—

seokjin had always spent his summers at the palace. it’s something a lot of nobles do; sending their youngest to be trained at court, to make nice with the royal children and get out of their parents’ hair for a few months. seokjin had spent his required hours in court, but every afternoon he’d managed to wiggle out of engagements to put on his dirtiest clothes and run with namjoon and taehyung across the palace grounds.

he’s the youngest of two, taehyung knows. seokjin’s brother is almost ten years older, has been knighted, had done his service to the crown and returned to his manor before seokjin had even finished his studies. taehyung has never heard seokjin describe his family as particularly warm.

“what do you mean?” taehyung asks. namjoon makes a soft noise, as seokjin sighs, drapes an arm over his face.

“we used to dine together maybe once a week, before the engagement. but now it’s like—he keeps trying to make sure i’m making yoongi happy. for the trade deals.”

namjoon’s hand curls around taehyung’s wrist.

“it’s just a few more days, right?” taehyung feels abruptly useless. the only thing he can really do is offer seokjin his presence, the comfort of something familiar in the whirlwind that’s starting to uproot the manor. seokjin sighs again, but this time it’s lighter.

“that’s right,” he agrees. the cheer in his tone is just forced enough that taehyung knows, carefully deliberate. “and then yoongichi can sweep me off to our estate in the countryside and i’ll never have to think about it again.”

“that’s so sweet,” taehyung pouts. he lifts his head up off namjoon’s lap, makes exaggerated puppy eyes at seokjin from the strangest angle imaginable. “but i’ll miss you, hyung.”

“oh, all right.” seokjin groans, through laughter. “you’ve beaten me down. you can come along as the first member of my harem.”

“hey! i thought that was my spot!” namjoon almost strains something trying to smack him, and taehyung gets kneed in the temple, and the two of them topple off the bed as seokjin laughs so hard he starts snorting. taehyung struggles to breathe after getting the wind knocked out of him by the ground against his back and namjoon’s elbow in his lungs, and then giggles so hard he wheezes.

“taehyung-ah,” seokjin says, all sugar and honey, when they’re done laughing. “i’m so glad you’re here.”

taehyung starts to respond, and is interrupted by a gentle knock, muffled in the space between the bedroom and the entrance to his chambers. namjoon’s head picks up blearily, before he rolls off of taehyung with a groan and a curse muffled into the palm of his hand.

“who’s that?” he asks, after he’s done straightening his shirt and tugging on his coat. propped on one elbow on the bed, seokjin shrugs.

“no idea. i wouldn’t invite anyone up this early.”

namjoon furrows his brow a little. he straightens his cuffs before he leaves, the door shutting behind him with a gentle click. taehyung doesn’t bother moving just yet, since seokjin doesn’t seem overly concerned. there’s a pause, the sound of the door to the parlor swinging open, and then—

“your highness!” namjoon says, loud enough that it carries into the bedroom.

in his brief moment of panic, taehyung doesn’t think before he moves. seokjin’s room is carpeted, and he barely makes a sound as he scrambles up, ignores seokjin’s frantic hiss in his direction, and flings himself into the walk-in closet moments before the handle to the door starts to turn.

“jimin-ah!” seokjin says, an octave above his normal register. “hi! i am—in my pajamas.”

“sorry, hyung,” the prince murmurs. the door to the closet is open, taehyung hidden behind the inward-swinging door. he can see the shaft of light that falls through the entrance from the window opposite, can practically imagine the prince’s short bow. “i didn’t know when would be a good time to catch you.”

“never,” seokjin replies, as solemnly as if he were swearing an oath.

“if it were me getting married, i’d want to vanish into the mountains too.” there’s a smile in the prince’s voice just then, one that taehyung knows, and it feels like an invasion of privacy.

“and i’m sure your inevitable desire to get married has nothing to do with why you’re here,” jin says, dry as an autumn leaf.

there’s a conspicuous pause. taehyung has to actively focus on breathing, calming the too-loud heaving in his chest as his body adjusts to the bolt of adrenaline.

“i know you won’t tell me who he is,” the prince starts. seokjin snorts inelegantly, and cuts him off.

“that’s very true.”

“i know. i’m sorry, i know, just—can i ask one thing?”

it’s the same voice he’d used when he asked taehyung if he could stay. taehyung wants to move, to peer through the crack between the wall and the door, to look at the expression on the prince’s face. through seokjin’s open window, taehyung can hear the sounds of the manor, long since woken with the morning.

the slight incline of seokjin’s head, the gentle purse of his lips, exist only in taehyung’s imagination. but something must happen, just outside his line of sight, because—

“is he titled?” jimin asks, voice as soft as unrisen dough.

the silence settles, like the dust taehyung can smell in the closet. his hand has wandered to press over his own mouth, trying to muffle his breaths in the still air, too aware of the thing in his chest that hurts like an arrowhead lodged just behind his ribs.

“oh, jimin-ah,” seokjin says, with all the sympathy in the world. someone sniffles, under the sound of seokjin’s down mattress shifting.

“he’s not.” jimin repeats it back to himself, sounds a little more distant. taehyung chokes on something like a dry sob, as quiet as he can make it. “he’s—that’s why you won’t tell me.”

“i’m doing my best. trying to, for both of you.” seokjin’s voice is so familiar; the tone he’d used when taehyung had come crying to him, the first time he’d overheard the rumors that flew around the kitchen about the two of them. the tone he’d used his last summer at the palace, telling taehyung that his father had arranged a marriage for him, to the youngest son of a borderlands lord. taehyung’s whole body is trembling, every bit of emotion packed down into stillness, into silence.

“i’m sorry,” jimin says, for no reason that taehyung can tell. “if i’ve been too much.”

“park jimin,” seokjin replies. “you’re a lot of things. too much isn’t one of them.”

taehyung blinks hard and long, trying to somehow block out the words. when he opens his eyes, the world swims in spots of odd color before settling again, and the door to seokjin’s bedroom has clicked open. from this angle, the open door is just barely visible, the prince’s hand resting delicately on the handle.

“will you tell him?”

“tell him what?” seokjin sounds like he’s still on the bed, maybe perched on the end. there’s something like a smile coloring his voice.

“that i don’t care,” jimin says, then corrects himself. “or not that—not that i don’t care. but it doesn’t change what i want.”

there’s a moment—a brief, ridiculous moment—where taehyung wants to stand up. wants to push himself out of seokjin’s closet and look jimin in the eye and say prove it. there’s a moment where he lets himself think, lets himself dream, that it might go the way the stories go. the dashing kitchen boy and the charming prince fall into each others’ arms, and the kingdom rejoices.

“i will,” seokjin says. “but, jimin-ah, i can’t make any promises for him.”

the moment shatters.

the prince closes the door behind him, and taehyung crawls out of the closet with shaking hands, and folds himself into seokjin’s arms like a rejected child until he can finally blink without spilling tears down his cheeks.

 

 

 

in the palace, nothing ever stops. the kitchen workers get afternoons of feast days off, but as taehyung has gotten older, sleeping early has started to win out over attending the dances, enjoying the festival. and after the parties end, after the scullions and cooks come crawling back to their rooms at all hours of the morning, they still wake well before dawn to make sure the palace doesn’t go hungry.

so taehyung is used to working, more often than not. he’d worked through the days after seokjin had left, after his final summer in court. he’d worked through the aftermath of his first real fight with jeongyu, with both of them too hurt to offer any kind of peace for almost a week. and when he shuts the door to seokjin’s quarters behind him, eyes sore and swollen, he stops into a washroom to press a soaked cloth to his face, before walking back to the kitchen and tying an apron around his waist.

it’s what he knows. it’s what he does.

long hours later, after the sun has gone down and the kitchen has been all but emptied, jaebum finds taehyung in the kitchen. taehyung hears him coming, expects the gentle hand that lands on his shoulder, pulling him away from the sink.

“you weren’t at dinner,” jaebum says quietly. there’s water up to taehyung’s elbows, scrubbing at the bowl he’d used after the kitchen girls had all left for the evening.

“i ate,” taehyung promises. he looks up quickly, just enough to see the concern folded on jaebum’s face, hopes that the redness from the morning has faded entirely. “just didn’t feel up for the hall.”

jaebum’s sigh is warm against taehyung’s nape.

“just making sure,” he says softly. there’s something heavy in his voice, something that makes taehyung look up and pay attention. “i know you might not have been sleeping well lately.”

“i—” taehyung starts, heat burning in his cheeks, but jaebum cuts him off with a raised hand, a smile tugging at his lips.

“he didn’t say anything,” jaebum says, and something taehyung hadn’t even known was tensed in his throat relaxes. “you’re okay. it’s our job to know where the prince is, though, even if we don’t follow him around all the time.”

“oh,” taehyung says, feeling suddenly a little foolish. the crown prince of the country; of course he’d been followed. of course there had been no privacy, underneath the illusion.

“hoseokie and i just wanted to make sure you’re okay.” it’s the last thing taehyung had expected, really, but he might have known better. jaebum and hoseok have never been anything but kind, if a little terrifying for their status. “i know you’re new to being around jimin. i just—it’s okay to tell him no. he’ll understand, if you mean it.”

too much, taehyung thinks, the words echoing in jimin’s voice. he wonders, achingly, who must have told him that. not hoseok, or jaebum, but—someone.

“i invited him in,” he says, instead of asking.

jaebum’s grip on his shoulder relaxes, just a little.

“okay,” he breathes. “okay, just making sure. we’re looking out for you, taehyung-ah.”

“thank you,” taehyung says, and means it. he smiles, and jaebum smiles back, and it’s easy as anything.

“get some rest, okay?” jaebum’s voice has softened, as he reaches up to ruffle taehyung’s hair. “if i know anything about jimin, he’ll be up half the night waiting to see you.”

this time, the burn on taehyung’s cheeks is a little less mortifying, and jaebum’s laugh tugs him away from the kitchen, down the hallway, and into bed.

 

 

 

he sleeps, a little. mostly, taehyung lies awake, keeps his candle out to save the wax, and tries to swallow down the nerves in his throat.

jaebum didn’t mean anything by it, he thinks. the prince is curious, is lonely, is anything but interested in taehyung in particular. it keeps him tossing and turning, unable to sleep for longer than a few brief bursts, even in the complete darkness of the bedroom. taehyung misses the feeling of bodies around him, the sound of someone else’s breathing to remind him that he’s not alone.

getting out of bed, hours earlier than his body tells him he should, is almost a relief.

the manor’s kitchen is starting to become familiar. this morning, taehyung sets out two mugs for tea from the start, and has the water poured into the teapot a few minutes before the door creaks open, firelight illuminating the prince’s face.

“may i?” he asks, and smiles sweetly when taehyung nods him in.

it’s strange how quickly it’s become routine. the blanket, the way jimin’s fingers curl around his drink. the ease of his presence, despite the way taehyung’s father would punish him for failing to drop to the floor at his prince’s entry. jimin doesn’t ask for that, taehyung has learned. some private part of him wonders if jimin even wants it.

“who taught you how to do this?” is jimin’s second question.

this morning, the pastries are simpler; small shells of dough stuffed with whipped cream. the cook had looked at taehyung incredulously when he asked for some of the materials the night before, but had managed to find everything within the recesses of one of the drawers. taehyung shrugs as he stands over the fire, watches the butter and sugar as it melts.

“i learned a lot on my own,” he says quietly, willing his voice not to crack. “one of my friends brings me recipes when he stops at the market, but i know enough now that i can experiment pretty well.”

“and no one else makes them?” jimin’s blanket has dropped to the table as he leans forward, squinting into the pot as taehyung stirs in flour. “isn’t that a lot of work for you?”

“i don’t have to make very many,” taehyung says. “your family are the only ones who eat them. i’ve taught my brother a little, but he’s not ranked enough to help much.”

“how old is your brother?” jimin sounds genuinely curious, sounds eager to talk. lonely, taehyung thinks. surrounded every day by people, and somehow lonely.

he wonders about the last time jimin has been able to get to know someone, without the barriers of title and propriety.

“seventeen.”

“terrible,” jimin says, with a breathy laugh. “ah, i remember when jihyunnie was seventeen. he tried to stab me with a practice sword.”

“try kitchen knives,” taehyung replies, a little dry to mask the small thrill in his chest. “he’s very well trained, and it’s all my fault.”

“that sounds so scary.” jimin goes quiet, blinks slowly into the fire. he doesn’t speak again until taehyung is back at the counter, the pot resting atop a damp towel to keep it away from the stone. “your whole family works in the kitchen?”

taehyung hums his agreement, barely audible over the way he’s beating eggs into the dough, squinting through his hair to check the consistency. that’s how it is, on the palace grounds. the work passes from parents to children; taehyung’s father had married a kitchen girl, and so the three of them work the kitchens. if their mother had been a laundress, eunjun would have followed her to the laundry rooms.

“did you ever want to do anything else?”

so many questions. taehyung bites his lip, as he fills a pastry bag with the mixture.

“i wanted to travel,” he finally says, as he finishes rubbing butter over the metal tray. he’s bent over the counter just a little, enough that his hair hides his face from jimin’s gaze. “when i was younger, i wanted to make art.”

in the end, he’s found a nice medium. he’ll never leave the palace kitchen, but—he’d found some kind of art. taehyung presses out the batter onto the tray, and taps down on the points, and thinks of all the ways he’s been able to experiment, to learn, to create things by himself. indirectly, he has jimin to thank for it.

“what about you?” he asks, when the silence lingers. “did you ever want to be anything else?”

jimin pauses. his face is strangely shadowed by the firelight, head tipped back just a little to bare his throat. taehyung’s hands still over the tray. he’s almost afraid to keep looking.

“yes,” jimin finally says, like he’s carrying the heaviest weight in the world. “i did.”

the night settles like a gentle dusting of flour around them, and taehyung wonders.

 

 

 

“can you show me?” jimin asks, the next morning, as taehyung gathers his ingredients. he still looks exhausted, the shadows under his eyes exaggerated by the lighting, his shoulders drooping under taehyung’s blanket.

there had been a formal dinner that night, taehyung had heard through the grapevine. lord kim and duke min and the prince, who had talked politics until the oil lamps in the hall had to be refilled. they’d still been talking by the time taehyung retired—so late that he thought, maybe, that the prince wouldn’t come.

but jimin is here. a little more worn, sagging a bit at the edges, but here. taehyung furrows his brow, and reaches for the flour.

he’s done with the pastries for the morning, small tarts much like the ones he’d made for the beginning of the journey, and is starting to move on to the sweeter bread for the day. he’ll do the regular loaves later with the other baker and jinwoo, but this is something nice—something special he can take the time for, during his morning with jimin.

“show you what?” taehyung’s brow creases in confusion, stilling as he measures out the flour.

“how you—do that,” jimin says, and then blushes like he’s done something to be embarrassed about.

“you want me to...teach you?”

there’s a pause, as taehyung absorbs what he’s hearing.

“not if you don’t want to!” jimin says, about an octave higher than usual. it’s—it’s almost a squeak. “really, this isn’t—i’m just curious. if you want.”

“okay,” taehyung agrees, and doesn’t let himself think about it. “i guess—come here, then.”

jimin slides off the counter with near-silent feet, and steps so close that his shoulders are almost brushing taehyung. taehyung doesn’t look; carefully doesn’t notice the few centimeters he has on jimin, that had been so obvious while they were dancing.

“i’m,” he says. clears his throat, to keep speaking in a whisper. “i was going to make honey bread. since i have extra time.”

“you’re not usually up this early,” jimin says mournfully. taehyung resists the sudden, childish impulse to elbow him gently in the ribs.

“it’s fine,” he reassures. “i want to be.”

in the corner of his eye, he can see jimin’s smile.

he walks jimin through the process slowly. when jimin asks him about the yeast, dissolving in a warm bowl of water and honey, taehyung explains. jimin is quiet and attentive and makes taehyung wonder about the kind of student he’d been, kept in tutoring for most of his life. when he’s done mixing the dough, and slaps it down onto the counter, taehyung only hesitates for a moment before he picks up a knife, and halves the ball.

“here,” he says, and drops it to the floured counter in front of jimin. “watch me first, then follow.”

beating dough isn’t exactly the most difficult thing in the world, but it had taken taehyung a while to learn. as a boy, he’d had to stand on a stool to get the leverage, using most of his weight before he’d built up strength in his arms and hands and shoulders. jimin’s first attempts are clumsy, but he pushes up the sleeves of his nightshirt and bites down on his lower lip and furrows his brow, and doesn’t give up.

“let me feel?” taehyung takes the dough back, after maybe fifteen minutes. jimin looks at him expectantly, with wide eyes and parted lips, and breaks out into a beaming smile when taehyung nods, testing the weight of the ball in his palms.

they wait for the dough to rise in complacent silence, broken by the crackle of the fire and the occasional brief exchange.

“thank you,” jimin says, as taehyung moves to lift the cloth from the bowls.

“for?” jimin shrugs, crowds in close again. he takes his loaf with careful fingers, and smiles down at it like it’s the most important thing he’ll do all day.

“i don’t know. not saying it’s—stupid for me to want to learn. for letting me try.”

“it’s not stupid,” taehyung says, and resists the urge to raise his voice, to speak in anything louder than a soft murmur. “it’s my work. if you want to learn, you should be able to. anyone should.”

jimin’s smile is so genuine it hurts. even as he punches down the dough, watching taehyung carefully for instruction, it doesn’t fade all the way; the smile hovers at the corner of his lips, breaking into something wider each time he does something right. it’s so much like taehyung had felt, on the best days of his training. when he’d earned his father’s praise, when he’d bitten into the first loaf of bread he’d ever made correctly on his own.

“i’m glad to be here,” jimin says, as he watches taehyung slide the two loaves into the oven. one is noticeably smaller than the other, a little more clumsily shaped, but it will taste just the same. maybe better, for the hands that shaped it. “with you.”

taehyung watches the way jimin picks dried flour out from under his fingernails, and finds himself smiling at the thought of some lingering, traveling with the prince through his day.

“i’m glad you’re here,” he murmurs back, and is rewarded with jimin’s smile. the backs of their hands brush, when they lean against the counter to watch the slow glow of the flames.

hours later, taehyung sends hoseok upstairs with half a loaf of honey bread, awkwardly shaped, endearingly dimpled. hoseok smiles when he looks it over, and winks like he knows a secret, and vanishes up to the prince’s chambers with familiar lightness in his step.

 

 

 

that day, preparations for the wedding begin in earnest. the scullery maids are called out of the kitchen to scrub endless meters of hallways; the sounds of the grand hall being prepared floats down and rattles in taehyung’s ears.

there’s a baker from the next province over who’s been hired to make the cake, or so taehyung has heard. they’ll be kicked out of the kitchen the evening before the wedding, so the preparations for the feast has already begun; the hunts have ended, without seokjin being forced along, the extra food has been piled into the pantry until it’s almost impossible to find anything.

“you’ll be serving at the wedding,” seokjin says that afternoon, with an apologetic crease in his brow. “it was the only thing i could arrange.”

by serving, he means standing in the back of the hall, and refilling nobles’ wine. taehyung grimaces over his soup, and takes namjoon’s gentle pat at his thigh with a bow of his head.

“at least i’ll be there,” he offers, with his best imitation of a smile. seokjin’s face softens at that, some of the worry wiped away.

“that’s right. my taehyung-ah, all grown up and at my wedding.”

“just this once,” taehyung says. “if you ever have another one, don’t send for me.”

“if hyung ever has another wedding, you can assume he’ll be tried for murder as soon as they find yoongi’s body,” namjoon mumbles. he accepts the whack on his shoulder with grace, and a muffled curse.

“i would never!” seokjin gasps, indignation coloring his face, the set of his shoulders. then, after a pause—“i mean, not without a good reason.”

“i believe you,” yoongi volunteers from the doorway of seokjin’s sitting room, and seokjin topples backward with a quiet shriek.

“don’t do that.” seokjin straightens up, cross-legged at the table once more, one hand pressing heavy at his chest. “gods, yoongi-yah.”

“i was just looking for jeongguk,” yoongi says. “but i think i’ll sleep with my eyes open after the honeymoon.”

it’s the kind of familiar banter that seokjin is so good at, the kind he’ll trade with anyone he cares about. taehyung has seen seokjin interacting in court, serious and narrow-eyed as he speaks of politics. and this may be a marriage of convenience, a strategic move by both their fathers, but the last thing taehyung would want is a marriage that forced seokjin to be a politician.

“jeongguk is in the greenhouse,” namjoon says, as seokjin bats his eyelashes like a lovesick milkmaid. “i think he wanted to talk to our apothecary.”

“if you see him, namjoon-ah,” yoongi says, a kind of deliberate lightness in his voice, “can you tell him that his highness the crown prince is looking for a sparring partner? i think he’s bored of only having his guards to fight.”

there’s the barest hint of a blush on namjoon’s tanned cheeks, as he inclines his head in the barest bow.

“of course,” he replies, the picture of propriety.

after yoongi vanishes from the doorway, taehyung masks an obvious bark of laughter into his elbow, trying to disguise it as a cough. this time, it’s namjoon’s hand that comes flying at the back of his head, as laughter breaks out between the three of them. a little more subdued than usual, maybe, but laughter nonetheless.

 

 

 

“i don’t understand,” jimin pouts, long hours later. he’s watching taehyung braid together strips of dough over an apple filling, bottom lip pouted out as he watches taehyung’s fingers work.

“didn’t you ever have to braid someone’s hair?” taehyung asks lightly. jimin shakes his head, miming in thin air what he thinks the pattern is. taehyung barely has to look at his work, by now, long familiar with the intricate loops and cross-overs that eunjun had demanded of him when she was smaller. “i used to braid my sister’s hair every day. she always wanted to look like the ladies.”

“no, but—that’s not the same, right?” there’s frustration leaking into his voice now, something sweetly petulant that makes laughter bubble up in taehyung’s chest. “that’s hair. this is just dough.”

“it’s the same,” taehyung says, through a soft smile. jimin’s fingers stutter in the air, palms falling to press flat against the counter. “look, i’ll show you.”

he finishes his work, already reaching for another chunk of dough, and has jimin watch closely as he presses it down, rolls it flat, cuts the sides into strips. he flours jimin’s counter, slides the dough over, fills it with a drizzle of apple and cinnamon and butter, and—

“here,” he says. he doesn’t think.

taehyung doesn’t think, and reaches for jimin’s hands, and only pauses when he hears jimin’s breath catch.

“it’s fine,” jimin blurts in a rush, before taehyung can even open his mouth. “it’s—i want to learn. please show me, taehyung-ssi.”

it’s more formal than anything they’ve said in the kitchen so far, and it comes out awkward and stilted, so much that taehyung almost expects jimin to duck his head in a bow. he laughs, a little nervous, a little awkward. he tries not to think about how smooth jimin’s hands are, underneath his.

“don’t do that,” taehyung says, before he really thinks about what he means. he can hear the frown in his own voice, but can’t do anything to stop it. “not here, please.”

“oh.” this close, taehyung can see jimin’s eyelashes. the short fall of them under his eyes when they’re closed, the tiniest few freckles along his cheek. “that’s—okay. i want to learn.”

“okay,” taehyung says, as soft as he can.

carefully, he starts to move jimin’s hands. it’s mostly intuitive, the only words passing between them taehyung’s instructions to take another strip, to let go, to press the end down gently. and it’s over quickly too, the whole pastry not more than taehyung’s handspan in length. taehyung’s heartbeat slows down halfway through, from the uncomfortable leap its pace had made when their fingers brushed, jimin’s skin unexpectedly warm.

“it’s pretty,” jimin murmurs, as he looks down at their work.

this braid is messier, but taehyung is growing endeared to the clumsy way jimin shapes things, obviously unpracticed but trying so hard to make them pretty anyway. the braid is a little crooked, the pattern listing from one side to another even in the short length it runs, but none of the strips are out of place. the edges have been tamped down with care, pressed in almost seamlessly; the filling hasn’t seeped out through the cracks.

“it is,” taehyung agrees. “want to try one by yourself?”

“i think i’ll leave it to you for now.” jimin shies a little, both hands pressed to his cheeks. he keeps glancing between taehyung and the turnover, brows drawn up tight. taehyung smiles at him, looks through his bangs a little longer than he should, before he turns back.

this kind of work is always soothing, drawing taehyung’s mind into a quiet place as his hands move without thought, years of practice beaten into his bones until he can let instinct take over, do all the thinking for him. it’s so much that when he sees the small hand inching toward the filling bowl, one finger outstretched as it dips, swipes, scoops out a chunk of filling, he doesn’t think twice.

it’s why taehyung doesn’t think, doesn’t remember, when he smacks viciously at the hand, sending the filling flying back into the bowl and the thief retreating in shock.

and then he freezes, ice creeping down his spine, too afraid to turn and look at the prince’s face.

there’s a small, choked sound, just to his right, and taehyung flashes back to the sickening fear of the masquerade, of the thought of what the punishment for touching a prince—for striking a prince—could be. and then jimin gasps, and hiccups, and giggles sharp and loud, louder than any words that have fallen from their lips in the last few nights.

“i’m so sorry,” taehyung whispers. he still can’t look, hand frozen in midair. even when jimin’s fingers take his wrist, pushing it down gently through tremors of laughter, he still can’t look. “your highness—”

“hey,” jimin says. he sobers quickly, tugging at taehyung’s sleeve until he turns enough to face him, eyes cast down to the stones. “don’t do that. not here, taehyung-ah.”

the echo, the familiarity, is what convinces taehyung to lift his eyes.

jimin is smiling. a broad, unrestrained smile that bunches up his cheeks, shoves his eyes into slits, makes him look a little younger in the lamplight. a little less burdened, in a way taehyung hadn’t noticed until it’s gone. jimin’s fingers trace from the end of his sleeve, down his forearm, until he laces their fingers together for a brief, lightning-hot moment. he squeezes once, and lets go, and laughs again kindly.

“it’s okay,” he says, brimming with humor. “i think i deserved that one.”

and taehyung lets himself smile back. thinking of the dozens of times he’s smacked chubby, childish hands away from his work, has slipped siblings and cousins and others alike an extra roll as compensation.

for the princes, he’d always scolded. and now, here he is, slapping the prince’s hand away from his own breakfast.

“i think you did,” taehyung agrees, a little shy, a little wondering.

jimin’s shoulder bumps him, and he pointedly licks the last traces of sugar off his index finger, and he laughs when taehyung tugs the mixing bowl closer, as if to shield it with his body.

it’s fun. tonight, despite their equal stress and exhaustion, they’re having fun, and taehyung lets himself forget the promise he’d made to let go.

 

 

 

that afternoon, taehyung walks in on seokjin in mid-crisis, panicking quietly about his wedding suit.

“it’s fine,” namjoon mumbles to him as seokjin paces around his bedroom, mumbling about calling his father’s tailor to fix something taehyung can’t even see on the garments laid out on the bed. “he’s in panic mode, nothing is wrong with the suit.”

“everything is wrong with the suit!” seokjin says shrilly, then deflates like a child’s ball. “sorry.”

he braces his forearms on the window ledge, and presses his forehead against the glass. it seems to do something, at least, because some of the tension sags out of seokjin’s shoulders as he huffs a breath, the day just warm enough that the fog fades after a moment. taehyung slumps back against seokjin’s down pillows, his spine aching at the comfort after spending hours on his feet, and stretches his arms above his head. there’s two satisfying pops, and namjoon smacks lightly at the exposed skin of taehyung’s stomach with a disgusted groan.

“oh, boys,” seokjin croons, in such a dramatic turnaround that taehyung almost bangs his head against the bedframe as he scrambles up. seokjin is still looking out the window, but there’s a vicious little smile on his lips that tells taehyung that something is about to go very badly for him and namjoon, and very well for seokjin. “come look over here.”

taehyung steps up to the window, the three of them crowded around the largest window in seokjin’s bedroom. the midday sun illuminates the courtyard below—the servants scrubbing at lower windows and floors, the sons and daughters milling about, trying to subtly stare at the spectacle going on in the center square.

the spectacle of the prince’s dueling practice.

there’s about ten of them; hoseok, the odd half-dozen of the prince’s guard, and shapes taehyung vaguely recognizes as yoongi and jeongguk. most of the guard are wearing bare-bones armor, leather chestplates to protect themself from the odd bad swing, but as taehyung shoves seokjin a little more into namjoon for a better view, he watches the prince peel his over his head, kick it to the side next to a trough of water they must have had brought out.

“looks like they found jeonggukie,” seokjin muses, with a friendly jab at namjoon’s ribs. taehyung barely looks away at the ensuing poke fight, as jeongguk’s chestplate joins jimin’s. “i heard he’s a bit of a prodigy.”

the prince and jeongguk are facing each other now, offering short bows before unsheathing their swords, glinting up at the window in the sunlight. at this angle, taehyung can’t see the prince’s face; only his back as he moves, letting jeongguk strike first.

taehyung doesn’t claim to know anything about swordfighting, but the two of them look well matched. he sees jeongguk smile broadly as the prince does something with his blade that almost overbalances him, and he doesn’t stop smiling as he regains his footing and gains a few feet of ground in retaliation.

“they’re good,” namjoon mumbles, as the match drags on. “they’re both good.”

for a long interval, taehyung follows the fight with a barely-open mouth, unable to predict the winner. the other sparring has stopped by now, hoseok standing with his arms crossed and sword sheathed across from yoongi, the entire square watching. they’ve turned enough that taehyung can see the way the prince’s brow is furrowed, his jaw firmly set. they’re on the third floor of the manor, but even from a distance the picture is strikingly clear.

it seems like the flight will never end, that they’ll be stuck in a stalemate until both are too exhausted to go on, but the match ends just as taehyung’s lower back starts to ache from how he’s hunched over the windowsill. jeongguk attacks, jimin parries, and jeongguk overbalances just barely enough that his foundation slips. jimin feints, and jeongguk twists, and with one strong shove he tumbles to the ground, landing solidly with the point of jimin’s sword centimeters from his throat.

there’s a pause, and the jimin sheathes his sword. jeongguk takes his offered hand and pulls himself up, and jimin uses that leverage to swing his arm around jeongguk’s neck, bringing him in for a hug.

the tension in the courtyard breaks. both jeongguk and the prince are panting, sweat plastering the prince’s shirt to the dip of his spine.

it can’t get any worse than this. taehyung’s breath is already caught in his throat, a little dizzy with the spectacle of it all. taemin calls something none of them can hear, and jimin tosses his head back to laugh, and then—

then jimin starts to peel his shirt over his head, leaving his hair sticking up a little, and taehyung can barely hear seokjin’s mocking little giggle over his own pained groan.

jimin strips off his shirt, and throws the sweat-drenched fabric at taemin’s head, and turns just enough that taehyung gets a good, long look at the musculature of his back, the tanned expanse of chest and stomach and flank. the tiniest point of his waist, so small taehyung’s hands itch to circle it, to judge exactly how many centimeters of skin might be left between his thumbs.

“taehyung-ah,” seokjin says absently.

“hmm?” taehyung asks, pretending like he could tear his eyes away if he wanted to. if he’s being honest, he probably couldn’t. it’s not the clearest view from this high up, but—it’s still a sight.

“if you don’t let that boy climb you like a tree, i will personally push you out of this window.”

there’s an unsettling little silence, broken only by the faintest echo of swords clashing down in the square.

“i’ll consider it,” taehyung finally says, tinged with something that feels a little like despair.

 

 

 

when jimin walks in, early the next morning, taehyung can barely look him in the eye. he can feel his ears burning red, hopes that his hair falls enough over them that jimin won’t be able to see. the door shuts quietly, and jimin wraps himself in taehyung’s blanket and picks up his tea like nothing is wrong. taehyung blinks, and the imprint of the cut of jimin’s hips flashes behind his eyes.

“are you okay?” jimin asks, when taehyung doesn’t greet him with his usual smile. taehyung blinks hair out of his eyes, and looks at jimin, and finds that it’s easy to separate this soft, sleep-mussed boy from the prince he’d seen in the courtyard. he smiles, and the set of jimin’s shoulders relaxes deeply.

“sorry,” taehyung says. “long day.”

“tell me about it,” jimin laughs. instead of hopping up onto the counter, he presses himself against taehyung’s side, inspecting the ingredients taehyung has spread out around them. he’s warm and eager, stroking gentle fingers along the curve of a bottle of cream. “what are we making?”

“scones.” they’re fast and simple; it will give him more time to work on other things, before they’re forced to give the kitchen up to the baker this afternoon. “you like lemon, right?”

“i like everything you make,” jimin says softly. taehyung goes a little warm with the praise.

“this one’s easy, i’ll show you,” taehyung says, when he isn’t sure what’s supposed to come next. it reminds him a little of trying to teach jeongyu, sullen as he might have been the few times taehyung had been allowed to teach him a recipe. jimin takes to it easily, though, reaching to hand taehyung ingredients as taehyung walks him through every step, the base chemistry of how the flour joins with the butter, the cream, to make dough.

“the wedding is tomorrow,” jimin says, when the scones have been shaped and cut, after he’s licked the excess dough off his thumb. taehyung picks up the peel, familiarly balanced, and nods as he slips the tray into the oven. they’re a quick bake, too, so he pours himself another cup of tea and settles against the counter, as jimin leans forward to peer into the orange glow of the oven.

“it is,” taehyung agrees. something heavy settles over his chest, shallows out his breathing, as he thinks about what that means.

one morning left in the kitchen with jimin. one day left with lighter responsibilities, with time to waste with his closest friends. one day left of seokjin and namjoon, who might barely be around anyway.

“will you tell me more?” jimin asks, like he isn’t sure the answer will be yes. “about what you wanted to do, when you were young.”

taehyung thinks, shrugs one shoulder, takes a careful sip of his sweetened tea.

“there’s not much to tell,” he says. “i would read jin-hyung’s books, sometimes, about all the places i’ve never been to. i wanted to go, and more when i started getting recipes from farther away. but that’s not how things work, in the castle.”

“it’s not,” jimin says, his eyes are pinned to the stones beneath his feet, now, face glowing in the light of the fire deep in the heart of the oven. “i’m sorry.”

“what do you have to be sorry for?” taehyung asks. “it’s not like you have much of a say in tradition.”

“i guess so.” jimin sounds a little distant, but not like he’s trying to put space between them. more like he’s uncertain how much he believes his own words. “i guess it’s just kind of strange. that something like that is so much the same, even thought i’m—”

he cuts himself off. like there’s no polite way of saying that jimin is at the top of their world, and taehyung is at the bottom, and yet they’re both bound by birth to follow in their fathers’ footsteps.

“it is,” taehyung agrees. “it’s funny that—it’s the same kind of duty. that maybe we both wanted to be something different, but it’s not how things could ever work.”

“i wanted to travel too,” jimin says, and taehyung finds himself watching the way jimin fiddles with the cuffs of his sleep shirt, the way the fabric touches the tips of his fingers when he straightens his arms. “i know three different languages because of it. i always would follow around the ambassador’s parties, and ask the sailors who came to visit about their stories. it was something my parents indulged, until—i think it started getting too serious. my father sat me down, and told me this is who you are, and that—it was hard to take. when i was that young, you know, i thought i could be anything.”

“sometimes,” taehyung says, “sometimes, i think i still could be. if i just had a chance.”

jimin looks at him, with wide eyes, as if he’s suddenly self-conscious. it’s not a bitter feeling in taehyung’s throat, at jimin’s words; it’s something that feels more like familiarity. like he and jimin are living on parallel lines.

“taehyung-ah,” jimin says, and the endearment feels as fragile as the glass-spun butterflies that dangle from vendors’ stalls at market. taehyung blinks hard, and takes a long draw of his steaming tea.

“come on,” he says gently. “your breadmaking still needs some work.”

 

 

 

the baker arrives at the kitchen precisely an hour after the afternoon meal, and immediately starts making demands.

“everyone out,” is his first order, through such a thick accent that it takes a moment for the words to register. the rest of the staff bows themselves out, and taehyung is halfway to the door when the baker—zhao, taehyung thinks, something zhao—snaps his fingers at the cook.

“one of your boys,” he says sharply. “give me a baker boy.”

taehyung stops cold, the eyes of the cook pinning him in place like so many kitchen knives. he steps forward, sweeps into a bow that barely passes muster, zhao obviously unimpressed with the space he’s been given to work with.

“who are you?” he bites out, surprising taehyung’s spine stiff. “apprentice? servant?”

“i’m a palace cook,” taehyung says quickly. he feels uncomfortably judged, his position stinging like an exposed nerve. “i make pastries for the royal family.”

zhao pauses for a beat, hands lifting to inspect the head-sized sack of chocolate powder that must have cost seokjin’s father an unbelievable sum. taehyung almost thinks he’s impressed him, until zhao sniffs, and shakes his half-bald head.

“my assistant now,” he says simply. he slams a bowl down in front of taehyung, and proceeds to pile bags of flour and sugar, powders and salt on the counter, along with a long list of measurements. “mix, castle boy.”

taehyung closes his mouth with a quiet click, wipes his hands on his apron, and starts to work.

it’s a long, exhausting afternoon. zhao is brisk, and unkind, and doesn’t speak other than the instructions he gives, but taehyung feels startlingly alive as he watches the cake come together from raw ingredients. it’s the most complicated dish he’s ever seen assembled; for the cakes and pies made for the two princes’ coming-of-age ceremonies, taehyung’s father had been the only one allowed in the kitchen with the bakers.

it’s exhilarating, learning something new, directly from a master. maybe it’s not what zhao intended, but taehyung can’t find it in himself to be upset at the brusqueness, at the intense labor of it.

this is what he’d wanted, he thinks, as he chops chunks of chocolate into bits as small as a grain of rice. when he was younger, this is all he’d wanted; to travel, to learn, to bake in foreign kitchens with foreign masters and keep the knowledge close to his heart.

“good,” zhao says gruffly, as he watches taehyung scrub what seems like endless dishes, until his hands have gone numb with the work. “you are a good worker. keep that.”

no one is above scrubbing floors, his father had told him once. it had been a punishment, maybe a year ago; always his favorite punishment to give taehyung. his head would drift a little too high, away from his work, and his father had always known how to bring him right back down. taehyung understands, even as much as he hates the bruising on his knees and the way he hadn’t slept that long night, until every stone of the kitchen floor was smooth enough to reflect his face back at him.

“thank you,” he says quietly. zhao scoffs, and wanders back to check the decorations on the cake, and leaves taehyung to finish the washing.

 

 

 

instead of going back to his room, taehyung falls asleep on the kitchen floor. it’s not intentional; he sits down to rest his aching legs, and wakes up with cold seeping into the backs of his thighs and a terrible pain in his neck. the kitchen is silent and pitch dark, almost too dark to navigate using only the last dying embers of the oven and the faintest glimmer of moonlight.

the first candle he lights illuminates the new clutter crammed onto every surface of the kitchen; preparations for the feast tonight, half-arranged dishes shoved into the cool pantry around the cake that towers half as tall as taehyung himself. his apron is still tied around his waist, soiled with flour and chocolate and uncomfortably cold from the water he’d inevitably dripped as he scrubbed dishes clean.

for a long, sore moment, taehyung wants nothing more than to crawl back to his bedroom and curl underneath his blanket until he’s dragged awake to serve at the wedding. it would be easier than keeping himself upright, palms braced on the counter to stop himself from swaying with exhaustion.

the decision is made for him when the door creaks open.

jimin looks almost as tired as taehyung feels. taehyung hasn’t had time to light the lower fire, so the single candle casts the shadows under jimin’s eyes into bizarre exaggeration. his shoulders are slumped, his head drooping low as he pads quietly over to the corner taehyung has begun to think of as theirs.

“are you okay?” jimin asks, when he gets close enough to really see through the darkness. despite the sleepy slant of them, his eyes are sharp, his gaze pointed. taehyung sags a little, glances down to see how rumpled he really looks.

“yeah,” he replies, after a long moment’s delay. “i just—fell asleep.”

“in here?” jimin’s voice is pretty when he’s worried. it’s a testament to how tired taehyung is that he doesn’t shy away from the thought. it takes a full shape in his head, settling down firmly like a soft, comfortable ball of dough. “you look dead.”

“i’m flattered,” taehyung mumbles.

“you need to rest.” jimin’s hands are warm against taehyung’s back, his collarbone. he doesn’t really want to move, even as his eyes drop shut, lids so heavy that keeping them open hurts. “taehyung-ah.”

“i like that.”

there’s a soft noise of confusion, from just to taehyung’s right.

“when you call me that,” he clarifies. something in him is screaming that it’s a bad idea, that he’s given too much away. jimin pauses, just enough that taehyung notices, and leans forward so that his forehead almost touches taehyung’s.

“i’m glad,” jimin says quietly. “i think you should sleep, taehyung-ah.”

“but your breakfast—”

“isn’t important,” jimin inserts. “not if it’s at the cost of your well-being.”

“oh.” the counter is cool under taehyung’s palms. the sharp pain in his neck has only started to ebb, and probably won’t fade for a long few days. taehyung is stripped down to raw sensation, to temperature and touch and the barest taste of chocolate hanging in the air. “i’m sorry.”

“don’t be sorry,” jimin says. “let me take you to your room?”

there’s something very wrong about that, taehyung thinks. something very wrong that he’s too tired to protest, as jimin loops careful hands around his wrists and tugs him away from the counter. they leave the kitchen behind them quiet, shrouded in darkness, the candle held in jimin’s hand as taehyung follows slowly behind.

taehyung leads them to his room mostly on autopilot, and manages not to get lost along the way by virtue of jimin’s gentle prodding at every intersection, every staircase. the answers are slow to come—a left here, up a few short steps there—but they make it, and taehyung leans heavily against the wall next to his closed door, one of a dozen in this hallway alone.

“i’m sorry,” he says again, pointlessly. jimin lowers the candle a little, lighting the bare space between them in the narrow hall.

“you haven’t done anything wrong.”

“but i like our mornings.” taehyung feels a little more awake, now; awake enough that his cheeks burn hot when he realizes what he’s said. what he’s been saying, since jimin walked through the kitchen door. he starts to apologize again, and is alert enough to think better of it. instead, on something like an impulse or an ache in his chest, he says: “tell me something?”

“like what?” it’s such an inappropriate request, but jimin doesn’t even blink. taehyung wants to touch, to reach out and brush his fingers along the curve of jimin’s cheek. he wants, suddenly, stupidly, to tell him about the masquerade.

“anything,” he whispers. jimin looks up, tests his weight between his feet.

“i’m going to abdicate,” he murmurs, and it feels like taehyung’s heart stops beating.

“what?” he searches jimin’s face for any humor, and finds nothing. not sadness, or anger, just—nothing. a blank slate.

“i’m passing on my title to my brother. i’ll stay a prince, but—i won’t inherit. not ever.”

“why?” it’s the only thing taehyung can think of. he doesn’t know how to think of jimin as anything but a crown prince; everything from the set of his shoulders to the lift of his chin seems born for a throne, born for something bigger than taehyung can even imagine. a small, wry smile lifts the corners of jimin’s lips. when he bows his head, his hair swoops into his face.

“it doesn’t feel right. it never has, and i’ve only told hoseok and taemin, but my father knows. and jihunnie. i think they’ve been planning around it for a long time.” the hand holding the candle trembles, just a little; the light wavers with it, ripples a dark line over jimin’s skin.

“and—you’ll be happier?”

jimin pauses. he looks at taehyung like he’s searching for something, eyes cast just those last few centimeters up. they’re close enough that taehyung can almost imagine gloved hands on his waist, lifting him surely into the air.

“i hope so,” jimin says, smile long faded. “you should rest now, taehyung-ah.”

taehyung goes without protest, this time. he’s struck a little dumb by the confession, fingers fumbling with the latch as he lets himself into his room. he turns quickly enough to see the furrow in jimin’s brow as he peers into the room, but he’s not coherent to tell whether it’s confusion that he has his own room, or indignation at its size or quality.

“good night,” taehyung says, quiet enough that it falls flat in the space between them. something like jimin-ah lies on the tip of his tongue, something he’s not brave enough to give voice to.

“good morning,” jimin says in return. the candlelight glints off his crooked tooth when he smiles, the whites of his eyes.

taehyung dreams about champagne bubbles in his stomach, and warm breaths against his cheek.

 

 

 

taehyung wakes up in enough time to help with the sparse breakfast, and is thrown bodily into preparations for the feast until mid-afternoon. any hopes he’d had of finding seokjin or namjoon are dashed, as he’s stuck in front of the oven, working until he sweats from the overwhelming heat of the oven, pulling peel after peel of and pastries of all kinds out from the fire.

the work is distracting enough, though, that taehyung doesn’t have to think about the bundle of anxiety sitting on his chest, that digs in its claws whenever he thinks about the wedding. whenever he thinks about jimin and the wedding, and the way taehyung almost can’t think of him as anything but the boy in the kitchens, the boy who’d taken the time to dance and laugh with a stranger.

every time taehyung thinks about what he’s about to do, nausea clamps down on his stomach so tightly it feels like he can’t breathe. the only thing he wants is namjoon’s quiet reassurance, seokjin’s effortless calm. at this point, he’d settle for hoseok or jaebum, if he could find them.

instead of any sort of emotional support coming to his rescue, a page boy shows up with taehyung’s uniform for the night, and instructs him about his duties, and taehyung is left floundering, barely able to keep his head above water as he washes himself, and prepares for the evening.

the uniform is nicer than what he usually wears; a soft, clean white, with a stiff high collar and minimal decorations. there’s nothing to be done about the state of his shoes, so taehyung rubs a chunk of charcoal over the most obvious worn spots and hopes the nobles get too drunk to notice.

when he comes back to the kitchen, resisting the urge to scratch at his neck, jinwoo’s eyes follow him around, wide as he hands taehyung the pitcher of wine, the dark cloth to wipe the lip. taehyung smiles and ruffles his hair, and jinwoo bows in delight and goes running back to his duties.

before he leaves the kitchen, maybe for the last time, taehyung escapes into the cool pantry to take a last look at the cake. there’s four tiers of it on top of each other, lavishly decorated with white and brown icing. it looks delicate enough that a heavy breath might topple the highest tier, but so immovable at the base that it had taken both taehyung and the baker to move it here.

it’s beautiful, and intricate, and everything taehyung could hope for. the feeling is as warm as a flame in his throat, and for once taehyung doesn’t decide to put it out.

 

 

 

for the first part of the wedding, taehyung has the perfect view. he’s standing in the back, watching the seated nobles closely for the first hint of a drained cup. over their heads, he can see to the dais, where seokjin and yoongi have met for the ceremony. where seokjin is standing, face as placid as ever to mask the wideness of his eyes, the subtle fumbling of his hands.

no expense, it seems, has been spared. the hall has been decked in ornamentation, and taehyung is almost afraid to step into the ballroom for fear of going blind from all the silver. the people glitter just as much, in jewelry that casts scattered freckles of light across the room as the sun goes down, illuminating the windows in warm, pale orange light.

it scatters over seokjin’s face, the gold stitching on his suit, more finery than taehyung is used to seeing on him. the wedding, and his hyung, are sights that makes taehyung’s breath catch in his throat; the scene is so different from the extravagance of the ball, yet similar in the way that it feels untouchable. in the way that taehyung feels like an intruder, even with his role to play.

the longest part of the ceremony is the gift giving. each guest approaches the dais, bows to the lords and the couple, and presents their gift. taehyung watches as seokjin and yoongi receive ornate jewelry with gracious bows; each guest seems determined to prove their wealth with something gilded or rare. there are pillows decorated with peacock feathers, lanterns with ornate etchings that must cast stunning shadows when lit, a few necklaces that look heavy enough to break yoongi’s neck, a ruby-encrusted ceremonial dagger from jeongguk’s family.

the prince goes last. hoseok walks a half-step behind him, holding out the pillow with his gift when jimin gestures. jimin takes the box, dark wood, gold detail, and lifts the lid as he offers it forward.

from his place at the back, taehyung sees easily how seokjin breaks into a smile that pushes at his cheeks. yoongi looks quietly pleased at the gift, and reaches in to pull it out.

jimin’s gift is two fine, golden chains, each with a pendant swinging heavy. something catches the light and bounces it back; a diamond, perhaps, set into each. seokjin bows deeper than he has the entire night, and jimin says something taehyung can’t hear, and pulls him into a gentle hug.

when jimin starts to pull back, seokjin’s hands resting on his shoulders, seokjin’s eyes shift, to meet taehyung’s across the hall. there’s a moment where taehyung feels like there’s a moth trapped in his ribcage, beating at his insides in a desperate attempt to escape, to flee, to get out from under seokjin’s knowing gaze and the soft, understanding smile he gives.

and then the moment’s over, and taehyung sucks in a quiet breath, and a lordling’s cup goes dry. he pours, and wipes the lip of his pitcher, and by the time he’s resumed his place by the wall, jimin has retaken his seat.

when everyone files out of the hall, following seokjin and yoongi’s footsteps as they make their way to the ballroom, a shoulder bumps briefly and gently into taehyung’s.

“there’s something for you on your bed,” namjoon murmurs, one hand caught around taehyung’s wrist. “hyung had it made. it’s yours, if you want it.”

the hall empties as the servants leave one by one, until taehyung is left with an empty pitcher and a decision to make and a moth perched uncertainly on his heart.

 

 

 

seokjin’s gift is a set of clothes, made perfectly to taehyung’s measurements. not the kind of finery he’d let taehyung borrow for the ball, not the cheap imitation of his current uniform, but still beautiful. a cream-colored silken shirt, a dark jacket that doesn’t constrict his neck, matching pants without patches in the knees. something a wealthy merchant might wear, instead of a lordling.

for all his theatrics and drama, seokjin has always understood taehyung well.

everything fits perfectly. they’re tailored with namjoon’s eye for detail, the jacket embroidered not with a family crest but with dark red thread in patterns that look like ivy vines of fire, along his cuffs and neck and hem. taehyung dresses, and pushes back his hair, and feels more like himself than he has all day.

at the ball, taehyung’s face had been painted with seokjin’s makeup. just smudged liner around his eyes, a subtle darkening of his brows, a brush of stain over his lips, but enough to make a difference. now, all he has is the cheap earrings he’d brought with him, and the careful style of his hair, pushed back from his forehead and secured with a dark pin.

there’s a mirror in one of the halls, on the way to the ballroom, and taehyung stands for a long moment and stares at himself, completely recognizable and yet so foreign.

taehyung had promised himself ten days, but he can’t stop himself from craving more.

 

 

 

by some miracle, taehyung isn’t too late to watch the first dance. the dance floor is empty, cleared of everyone except seokjin and yoongi, and taehyung slips into the back of the crowd just as the music starts, and yoongi reaches for seokjin’s hand.

the dance is carefully choreographed. taehyung can see the way seokjin is biting his lip, all his energy focused on remembering the steps, on maintaining an air of grace. yoongi looks similarly focused, but every time their eyes meet, one of them ends up breaking into a smile. they look good, look right together in a way taehyung had been afraid about when he’d heard seokjin was engaged. now, as seokjin lifts yoongi oh so carefully into the air and laughs when he sets him down, taehyung knows he doesn’t have to worry anymore.

“you look nice,” a voice says from taehyung’s elbow, and he nearly flinches out of his skin. hoseok just smiles back at him, laid back and comfortable, and presses their shoulders together. “relax, people will look.”

“you scared me.” taehyung tries not to make it a pout, but he doesn’t really succeed. hoseok’s eyes narrow, his smile a little more calculating as he glances at taehyung from head to toe; from the soft silk collar of his shirt to the shine of his new shoes.

“i’m not joking,” he finally says. “you look amazing. are you...?”

taehyung takes a deep breath, and squares his shoulders.

“you said he’d be happy, right?” he hates how vulnerable he sounds, how it makes hoseok go soft at the edges like he’d pinch taehyung’s cheeks if he could.

“oh, taehyung,” he says, saccharine sweet. “he hasn’t shut up about you for days.”

taehyung watches the dance floor, as other couples join yoongi and seokjin. he can pick jimin out of the crowd by his jacket alone, a rich blue with white detailing. he hasn’t moved to dance, even as duchesses and ladies approach him one after the other. taehyung watches four women walk away disappointed, before hoseok speaks again.

“it’s scary, right?”

taehyung nods. yoongi and seokjin have stopped dancing by now, to finish their pieces of the cake that had been cut during taehyung's absence. the ballroom is crowded with small talk and laughter and dancing, as servants weave through the crowd with platters of taehyung’s tarts to offer the crowd. hoseok, dressed finely enough to be a minor lord himself, snags one and takes a pointed bite.

“i could be killed,” taehyung finally answers. “you know that. if he weren’t—him—i would be dead as soon as i touched him.”

“you sound like you’ve already made up your mind,” hoseok says.

another girl walks away from jimin, and a friend reaches out to soothe a hand along her arm. taehyung tries to remember the ease he had felt hours into the ball, when he and jimin had secluded themselves in a corner to talk and laugh behind their masks. hoseok presses a tall glass of glittering champagne into his hand, and taehyung takes a deep breath.

he manages to drink half the glass, enough to taste bubbles in his throat, before handing it back. taehyung grips hoseok’s wrist, and looks him in the eye, and hopes to every god he knows that he isn’t wrong.

pushing through the crowd isn’t hard. everyone is moving easily, loosened by drink and laughter and the good cheer of a successful match. at the grand table, seokjin is making some sort of scene with jeongguk and the cake. jimin is still watching the dance floor, one finger tapping lightly at the rim of his champagne glass.

hoseok is already at jimin’s elbow as taehyung reaches them, leaning to whisper something in his ear as he takes the glass from jimin’s hand. he makes deliberate eye contact as he backs away, downing the rest of jimin’s champagne as he goes.

the man next to taehyung squints at him, before turning back to his companions. taehyung tries to calm the panicked beating of his heart, its pounding so intense in his chest that he’s afraid jimin could hear it from here.

he has to act. taehyung feels numb, feet frozen and tongue lying dumb, until he shakes himself out of it. he has to act now.

taehyung reaches out, puts the barest pressure above jimin’s elbow. jimin starts to turn, and stops with wide eyes and parted lips as he sees.

“may i have this dance?”

 

 

 

for a moment, it’s like time has stilled. jimin is facing him directly now, eyes tracing over the planes of taehyung’s face, one hand reaching up, as if to brush across taehyung’s jaw. the conversations around them, the music, the gentle clinks of china, all seem to have faded as taehyung waits, fingers still brushing the heavy silk of jimin’s coat.

“it’s you,” jimin whispers. it’s something barely voiced, not meant to be heard, brings to mind the gentle cadence of his morning voice. taehyung’s whole body is trembling; he’s sure jimin can feel it as he reaches down instead, as jimin touches him, as their fingers wind together almost on instinct.

“it’s me,” he says. it feels utterly inadequate for the way jimin is looking at him, the tightness in his throat the first indication of oncoming tears. the room is starting to go quiet around them, as people take notice. “i’m sorry i didn’t say anything.”

“don’t be sorry. not to me.” jimin looks down at their clasped hands, warm skin on skin, more like the kitchen than the masquerade. “taehyung-ah, are you—you want to dance?”

“i do,” taehyung answers. “if you’ll have me.”

jimin’s mouth gapes open, eyes working like he’s trying to memorize each line of taehyung’s face. like he’s afraid taehyung will slip back into the crowd, and vanish, and leave him with nothing. there’s an ache in taehyung’s heart at the thought; that he’d left so carelessly, that he’d been afraid and selfish and uncertain, and jimin is the one who’d hurt for it.

the last strings of a song fade out, and taehyung reaches tentatively to pull jimin in. jimin goes without hesitation, hand settling lightly over taehyung’s waist. at their side, a lordling starts to whisper viciously to his companion; across the ballroom, the orchestra picks up a new song, light and delicate and winding through the air between them. jimin steps backward as if compelled, and pulls taehyung into the first, careful steps of a waltz.

and then—it’s like they never left in the first place. taehyung’s body falls into jimin’s lead as easily as he had almost two months ago, though jimin’s steps are a little more hesitant, his footing less precise. he won’t stop looking, eyes darting from the bow of taehyung’s lips to the sweep of hair pushed back from his forehead.

“you’re staring,” taehyung whispers, through a throat so dry he can barely speak. jimin blinks, seems to come back to himself just enough.

“i think i’m dreaming,” he finally says.

“you didn’t know it was me?” taehyung’s thumb smooths over the soft skin of jimin’s hands. his callouses feel out of place, but jimin hadn’t cared in the darkness of the kitchen, with taehyung’s hands guiding him. now, he lets jimin lead, and hopes it will be enough.

jimin bites his lip, furrows his brow. his fingers dig a little tighter into taehyung’s waist.

“i hoped,” he admits. delicate, almost whispered. “i thought i was imagining everything. i was so—it was just one night. and you were gone, and i thought i’d never find you again. taehyung.”

“jimin,” taehyung murmurs. for the briefest moment he closes his eyes, trusts jimin to keep him moving. loses himself, to the dizzying spin of the world around him. when he opens his eyes, they’re passing by seokjin’s table, and taehyung barely manages to catch his eye before the music and the steps carry them away again. “you’re not going to ask?”

“i want to know all of it.” the confession is rushed, words pulled out of jimin’s throat almost guiltily. “i do, i want—i want so much. but if you don’t want to tell me, i’ll wait.”

taehyung’s feet stop. they jerk to a halt, at the edge of the dance floor, and jimin seems puzzled as taehyung gathers himself, unwilling to unwind their fingers even as they’re no longer dancing. jimin’s hand slips from his waist, comes up to brush as lightly as a feather against taehyung’s jaw. he takes a deep breath, and lets the dizziness fade away.

“i want to tell you. i will, all of it, just—not here?”

across the ballroom, seokjin smiles lightly. pressed against the back wall, hoseok gives a deep nod of his head.

“of course,” jimin says, and leads them out of the ballroom, and leaves the lords and ladies to their endless, inevitable whispering.

 

 

 

they don’t make it farther than the next hall over. taehyung’s hands are trembling as jimin pulls him gently through the drafty, high-ceilinged corridors, and sags back against a wall as soon as their pace starts to slow.

“are you all right?” jimin asks, voice echoing against the stone, and taehyung settles back into his body enough to notice the unsettling ferocity of his heartbeat, the way his lungs constrict his breath on every inhale. he gasps in a breath and blinks back humiliating stinging in his eyes, and feels soft hands stroking gently against his cheeks. “taehyung-ah, hey, what’s wrong?”

he opens his eyes, and it’s—jimin. just jimin, standing in front of him, holding taehyung up like he had in the darkness of the early morning. there’s a crown glittering atop his hair, dark red paint smudged lightly over his lips, but—just jimin.

“i’m okay,” taehyung says, and his voice shakes through it. he wraps his fingers around jimin’s wrists, displacing a few light bracelets, and tugs his hands down.

“are you scared?” it’s a breathed-out question, jimin’s eyes wide in the light from the oil lamps. taehyung’s thumbs trace sweeping lines over jimin’s skin, drawing him just that much closer. jimin is watching his eyes, watching his lips. it’s the most terrified taehyung has ever been, and the most certain.

“i’m trying not to be,” he murmurs.

taehyung leans forward, ducks the last few centimeters that separate them.

jimin’s smile trembles against his lips, his gasp as sweet sticky as honey. fingers lace through the hair at taehyung’s nape; jimin shudders as he lets himself stumble closer, as taehyung’s hand finds the firm muscles of his back, as the stones seep cold into his back and jimin presses warm against his front.

“taehyung,” jimin says, when they break. his hand in taehyung’s hair is gentle, stroking lightly, making taehyung want to close his eyes and lean into the touch like a pampered lady’s cat.

“i thought you might be disappointed,” taehyung whispers. jimin might be on his tiptoes, as he braces their foreheads together. “or angry. i’m not—i’m just me.”

jimin’s lips are pink, paint smudged at the corner of his mouth. there’s a flush on his cheeks that colors him nicely, the lamp just to the side lighting up the smooth planes of his face. taehyung could look at him for hours, and learn something new every minute.

“i never stopped looking,” jimin starts, a little hesitant. “in all the wrong places, and they never felt—i met with every noble my age i could find in the record books. none of them talked to me like i was—like i was a person instead of a crown. and you’ve never made me feel like that. not at the ball, not when i didn’t know anything about your work.”

his thumb brushes taehyung’s cheek. taehyung doesn’t feel like he’s breathing, overcome by the thing in his chest that has feathers now instead of claws, alive and warm and bubbling through his fingertips like champagne.

“taehyung-ah,” jimin whispers. “how could i be disappointed?”

taehyung shudders, and gasps in a wet breath, and buries his face in jimin’s shoulder. the embrace is as tender as the kiss, jimin holding him up with steady arms, pressing his cheek against taehyung’s hair. the tension floods out to the ground, only really noticeable after taehyung’s spine sags with the weight that’s been lifted, when his legs shake after spending so long locked into place.

jimin holds him, fingers stroking nonsense patterns into the bare skin under taehyung’s collar, until taehyung is ready to stand by himself again.

 

 

 

long hours later, taehyung wakes up in the prince’s bed. it takes him a moment to remember—confused in his exhaustion about the comfortable give of the mattress, the cool softness of the sheets against his skin, the warm pressure against his side and over his waist. he blinks up in confusion, the room lit by a lantern just to the side of the bed.

and then jimin sighs in his sleep, and curls closer to taehyung’s chest, and the memory of the night emerges from taehyung’s blurry confusion like scattered light from a necklace.

for most of the night, they’d talked. jimin had led them back to his rooms, had sent the small troupe of people there away—taemin and the footmen almost bursting with effort to restrain themselves—and they’d talked. taehyung had told him everything, from the summers spent with namjoon and seokjin to the scrawled note on the back of his wedding invitation. jimin had listened attentively, both of them cross-legged on the bed; knees pressed together, hands joined between them.

in between the talking, too, there had been kissing. taehyung burns to remember it, the hand not trapped by jimin’s weight fluttering up to brush against his lips. he’s never spent that much time kissing before, pressed alternatively on top of each other with hands tangled in hair, sending an absurd amount of pillows falling to the ground until jimin had wobbled at the very edge of the bed and shrieked as he almost pitched over.

jimin had lent him a nightshirt, and they’d slipped under the down covers, and jimin had waited for taehyung to pull himself close.

now, in the small hours of the morning, taehyung has time to think. the thoughts are dizzy in his head, spinning even before he manages to untangle himself to sit up. jimin hums something unintelligible and flops over onto his back, lips pouted out in his sleep like a baby’s. taehyung’s heart hurts with the flood of endearment, the desire to curl himself back under the covers and tuck himself back into jimin’s side.

instead, as always, taehyung heads to the kitchen. he stops by his room along the way, to pull on pants a little more appropriate, but can’t make himself discard the shirt that fits him well, where one of the same size had enveloped jimin in a slight excess of fabric.

after a moment’s hesitation, he takes the yellow blanket from his bed, and wraps it around his shoulders. the candle flickers as he finishes the journey, almost blowing out as taehyung swings the door open, cool air from the open window shivering into the gaps between fabric and skin.

the manor kitchen is familiar enough that taehyung can pick out ingredients easily in the darkness, testing bags by weight and feel to judge what he needs. the quiet clatter as he moves is familiar and soothing, lets him straighten out his thoughts as he decides what to make, how he wants to work.

jimin wants him, is the thought that echoes. jimin looks at him with something terrifying in his eyes, and listens to him like every word is important, and gasps taehyung-ah when he wants to be kissed.

before he even realizes it, taehyung is smiling.

he’s rinsing out a bowl of raspberries, when the door to the kitchen creaks open. taehyung pauses, facing away, and feels the smile slip from his face. the tension is back, anxiety fluttering in the pit of his stomach as soft footsteps come closer, closer.

“i thought you’d be here,” jimin murmurs, in the same voice taehyung has come to know. he turns slowly, watches jimin look at him, from his messy hair to the shirt he’s still wearing, to the way his fingers are braced against the sides of the bowl. taehyung takes a deep breath, and forces himself to relax. this is the most familiar thing to him. jimin, softened, in the kitchen.

“i wanted to think,” he finally says. “this is the best way i know how.”

jimin steps back. his fingers brush against the blanket, crumpled on the low table. “do you want me to go?”

taehyung thinks about the kitchen, empty as he works. about jimin during past nights, heels tapping out a rhythm as he’d sat on the counter with the blanket around his shoulders.

“please stay,” he finally says. he has to work not to adjust his voice, now that jimin knows. “you can help, if you want.”

the smile sticks on jimin’s face, as he rinses his hands and steps up to the counter.

they work in silence, at first. taehyung shows jimin each step of making the dough for the rolls, and walks him through mixing the filling himself. he lets him try working the dough, and they find that jimin’s arms are used to the strain of a sword, rather than a spoon.

“you’re just taller,” jimin teases, when taehyung has to take the bowl back.

“that’s not my fault,” taehyung mumbles, and watches a fingerful of filling disappear as jimin’s retaliation. “i’ll still smack you.”

jimin grins, but doesn’t push his luck to swipe another taste.

after the buns have been rolled into thick logs, taehyung works quickly to cut them individually, and jimin works with sticky fingers to organize them onto trays. his lips are almost as pink as the raspberries, taehyung thinks, and forcibly pushes down on it. he wants to reach out and pull jimin to him, taste the berries on his lips, but it’s not the place. not the time, not when he’s so uncertain of the future; what happens after the sun rises, and the party starts back toward home.

“you can ask,” jimin says, as taehyung slides the last tray into the oven. “if you want to know something, you can ask me.”

taehyung sets the peel down, arms long used to the weight of it. he gathers himself, as jimin sits cross-legged on the table with taehyung’s blanket over his lap and watches with the same gentleness taehyung has come to know.

“i don’t know,” he finally says. “i don’t know what i’m doing. what you want this to be.”

taehyung isn’t a stranger to offers from nobles. some of the summer lordlings have approached him, over the years, with salacious grins and jingling sacks of coins on their belts. he’d always sent them away, uninterested and ever-aware of the constant cycle of rumors between servants. this, though, with jimin, is as different to those offers as they are in station.

“i want everything.” jimin drops his hands into his lap, picks a little at his nails. he doesn’t break his gaze, though; doesn’t seem to be remotely ashamed. taehyung burns with heat from the oven, and something else. “anything you’ll let me have, taehyung-ah.”

“and—the most?”

jimin takes a breath. straightens his shoulders, closes his eyes for just a moment longer than a blink.

“i want to court you,” he says, without a waver to his tone. “with all the grace and courtesy you deserve.”

it’s like the wind has been knocked out of taehyung’s chest, leaving nothing but emptiness in the place behind his ribs. he fumbles for something to hold on to, ends up gripping the warm stones next to the oven, where they’ve been laid unevenly. jimin’s eyes are wide, knuckles white where he’s got them clenched. taehyung shudders in a breath, the air burning his throat.

he doesn’t know what he’d expected. all he knows is that suddenly he wants, with a ferocity that could consume an entire kingdom. he wants more mornings like this, wants more kisses, wants to know every inch of jimin under his palms and lips. he wants more than the three day’s journey back to the kingdom, and a servant’s life in the kitchen.

he wants, and wants, and jimin is offering.

“jimin-ah,” he breathes, the name as familiar on his tongue as his own. “yes.”

 

 

 

that morning, the crown prince’s party leaves the manor behind.

taehyung hugs seokjin goodbye, and promises to write, and almost suffocates in namjoon’s embrace before they let him go. the manor is sleepy and hungover, and so they’re waved off by seokjin and yoongi and jeongguk, who stumbles from his rooms with hair sticking up in every direction and immediately starts tormenting seokjin.

taehyung shoulders his bag, stuffed a little too full with a new pair of clothes, and follows the carriage until the manor is out of sight. he burns with embarrassment at sungwoon and jaebum’s gentle teasing, and keeps his mouth shut tight, and clambers into the empty carriage with the rest of them when jimin leaves it to mount.

everything is the same as the journey there—except this time, when they pause to let the horses rest, jimin greets him with a kiss.