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Untouched

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He woke up to a crawling kind of dark. The lantern in the chamber had burnt out. It had burnt out, or someone had put the flame out before it could die its small death.

The same someone covered Changkyun's mouth.

He screamed, but the hand clasping his face drowned out the sound. Even if the petite palm hadn't sewn Changkyun's mouth shut, his scream would have gotten lost in the song of steel and the roar of men that rose to his chamber from the courtyard. A brief glance out of the window sliced out a miniature sight of a great fire. The ramparts burned.

He finally smelled the smoke. Until now, he could only smell Kihyun.

With another drowned out wail, Changkyun moved to mince Kihyun's wrist in his hand, trying to tear him away, but the royal guard didn't let go. His armour hurt Changkyun as it pressed against his bones.

“Quiet, Your Grace,” whispered Kihyun. “Quiet, and hurry. The fire is spreading.”

Smoke. Smouldering flesh. Wood and flowering pear trees and people burned in one blazing breath of destruction. The far-reaching fingertips of the fire grazed Changkyun's face in a wave of heat. He buckled.

Heaving a breath, Kihyun hefted him back to his feet and herded the young king to a passageway in the wall.

A passageway in the wall. Changkyun hadn't even known it was there. He grew sick. He'd been sleeping in this strange place for days without knowing that there was a path right by the head of his sleeping mat, open to anyone who would rather see himself on the throne in the boy's stead. His gut shrank, forcing a sour stench up his throat, as sour as the stench of flesh wounds.

Kihyun rushed him in. The milky moonlight had gone. The breaths of fire had gone. All that remained was a water-like, serene darkness, and Kihyun's metal-gloved hand between his shoulder blades.

It was like being buried alive. He groped in the dark, stumbling forward solely because of the push of Kihyun's hand. The path before him unfolded in tight coils, steep, but without any crossroads. Bare feet falling on the floor, once smooth, once full of tricky stairs, Changkyun thought that he should have put on his shoes. His coat. His crown. The boy king needed his crown to be seen as a king at all.

Then he thought of the toys stacked at the very bottom of his travelling chest. His mother's rosewood chest. His carved knights and horses, their once pretty paint chipped off and faded.

Wood. It was all wood. And wood would burn.

He turned around, crashing into Kihyun. The tiny body behind him didn't budge. It would have – without the armour. Kihyun was as slight at seventeen as Changkyun at fourteen. But there was no way Changkyun could get past Kihyun, truly past him. He wasn't the Commander of the Kingsguard at such a boy-breaking age for nothing.

Kihyun steered Changkyun back, with carefulness that was felt even over the glove of his armour, and then there was more stairs and more rime-licked walls and then the tunnel came to its end at last. They ran into the stone-paved courtyard.

The smoky air stung Changkyun's eyes. He was too afraid to close them, afraid to as much as blink. It was still like being burned alive, with flames and cries closing in on him instead of walls. The fire churned out liquid-looking sparks, molten and golden and too fascinating to even realize that it was fear that rooted him where he stood.

The sound of hooves rained over the ground. Snapping out of his daze, Changkyun looked up to see Hyunwoo and Hoseok on their war horses. Shadows and dread drained their features of their usual composure. Their strength and prematurely aged faces gave them an aura of doom, the same that the flames spread around them. Hyunwoo was holding another set of reins, spurring on Changkyun's stallion.

“Get on, Your Grace,” said Kihyun, again in a whisper.

“Where are we going?”

“To safety.”

Mouth thinning, Changkyun vaulted into the saddle. He yanked the reins out of Hyunwoo's hand.

He stopped. And looked down.

Kihyun still stood there.

“Climb on,” said the king.

Kihyun shook his head.

“I'll stay and help.”

As if to contradict him, the side of Lord Song's pavilion caved in. The stone screamed like a human. Or it was humans screaming under the rubble.

Changkyun choked on the sour aftertaste in his throat again.

“You can't stay,” he protested.

Wordless, Kihyun watched him with that deep-set wrinkle between his eyebrows, and then he turned around and rushed back into the pavilion before the king could order him not to.

Hyunwoo smacked the stallion's backside and the animal started to race under Changkyun, roaring as it neared the fire. The horse ran out of the gates.

 

“What do you mean, someone could have caused the fire on purpose?”

Kihyun didn't gaze up at the boy king from where he kneeled, keeping his head low. His skin was matted with soot and dried up sweat. The strands above his forehead were shorter than before, scorched and curled. His armour had gone black in places, charred, the gilded metal waved in. A wet-looking burn glistened where his hairline shaped into a heart. It was a rosy reminder that people weren't immortal, or even indestructible.

He hadn't registered any pain as he'd scoured the pavilion, waking the sleeping residents up and jumping away from fires as their tongues licked at him. He'd noticed the flames had touched him, he just hadn't felt it. As he kneeled under the king, though, his bones began to tense up to the point of creaking. The burn tingled. He was tired. Tired from swallowing smoke and searching the rooms and riding for hours to reach the king's summer palace.

He could thank the gods that the small palace lay so close to Lord Song's pavilion.

“It is but a theory, Your Grace,” said Kihyun to placate the boy king's stormy silence.

“A theory you think plausible enough to present to me,” replied Changkyun sharply.

A pause. “Yes.”

The throne hall stood unlit in the dawn, sunken in blue-black shades and shadows, with nobody there but the king and three members of his Kingsguard. Hoseok and Hyunwoo towered behind the throne. The way they looked would intimidate greater men than Kihyun, but Kihyun knew the knights through and through. Standing there what looked like two accusing statues, to Kihyun they were two torches who cast a shred of warmth over the young king's sullen countenance.

Changkyun watched Kihyun without a word. The weight of his gaze seared the back of Kihyun's neck the way no fire could.

“According to you, ser, someone burned down Lord Song's house. Not on accident. But intentionally.”

“It is a possibility, Your Grace.”

“Why would someone do it?”

“Because,” began Kihyun, halting. He hated this part. This part which was the axis of his job. The reason of his existence. “...Because the fire would have reached your chambers soon, had the panic not spread.”

“It was about to reach everyone's chambers,” replied Changkyun. He took the taste of death in like it was of no consequence to him. Like life mattered little, and death even less.

He was so used to it.

It chilled Kihyun. Even after years of protecting him, the king still wasn't safe enough to be scared at the idea of death.

“That is true. The fire would have killed many more, if the watch hadn't worked to put it out right away,” conceded Kihyun. “But that's the point. The fire didn't start from the inside. It didn't start from an untended candle or a fallen log. It started from the outside, far from any settlement, during the rainy season. It started from a place where there was nobody to cause it by accident. No stable boys. No servants. No stables. No houses. The fire sparked from the ramparts and it would have reached the side of the pavilion where you slept.”

Falling silent, Kihyun felt rather than heard a creak in his knee. Still, he didn't shift. He'd been trained to stay in one position for hours, be it standing by the king's chamber door, or kneeling when taking orders. The ache that came with it had become a second-hand sort of sensation, something the past Kihyun may have known, but the present one barely even recognized as his.

The silence stretched on, with nobody to break it. It was the king's turn to speak.

His turn to distrust everyone, as always.

“Who do you suppose caused it, ser?” he asked. A cold trickle washed over his voice, sapping all colour from it.

The cold trickled through Kihyun too. His sinews grew taut, straining, sticking to the armour in one place, there on his back. Something told him his skin had scorched together with the steel there, becoming one. He willed his body to listen to him. His forehead to smooth down. His thoughts to steady.

“Many people could have done it, Your Grace,” he said.

“You're trying to be diplomatic, but you're just being evasive,” commented the king. The cold had grown colder. The colourless tone had gone to pure black. “Speak.”

Kihyun held his head slightly straighter at the order. His eyes rose, grazing the soles of Changkyun's shoes.

“A smart person would start the fire in the chamber where you slept. An insane person would set the whole building ablaze in hopes that you would burn too.” Parched, Kihyun's lips stuck together. He wetted them with the tip of his tongue. “And an insanely genius person would set fire to their own house to kill you and avoid the blame.”

Shadows stilled. Amongst them, the king leaned forward in his seat.

“Are you insinuating that Lord Song tried to kill me tonight? You, who always weighs his words like grains of gold?” asked the king coolly.

“I am insinuating no such thing. All I did was list the possibilities, Your Grace.”

“You must be mad. You must be mad to think that I would be mad enough to believe this theory.”

He spat the last word out like he would sometimes do with Kihyun's family name. Like it tasted sour.

“I do not ask you to take it at face value, Your Grace,” said Kihyun, calm, because there wasn't anything besides calmness to hold on to. “But as the Commander of your Kingsguard I must ask for this case to be investigated. Whoever did this didn't do it by accident.”

“Why should I rely on your judgement, ser?”

Behind the throne, the two almost-statues stirred. Kihyun didn't have to look up to know that they had to hold themselves back so as not to speak on their Commander's behalf.

But Kihyun hadn't expected any other outcome, so he stayed still. He was still inside out.

The king never believed.

He never believed anyone.

And he also believed everyone.

Kihyun could imagine himself on the same throne, and just as shattered. The king's head had to be heavy even without the crown.

He hadn't seen the boy without his crown since the coronation. Back then, Changkyun had cried. He was eleven, and an orphan of less than six hours.

The memory always appeared in his mind oddly tender even though it had ended both their childhoods.

Kihyun ordered his thoughts. “You have no reason, Your Grace. If my judgement isn't strong enough currency, don't heed it.”

That response didn't please the king, but very few responses ever pleased him.

His gaze fixed on the nape of Kihyun's neck, Changkyun leaned back against the backrest of the throne. Suddenly it looked like a plain big chair, and Changkyun looked his age as he sat there.

“Go.”

Kihyun tensed, then grew slack. The minuscule movement of muscles escaped everyone because of the armour he wore. Eyes lowered, he got up. He moved his arm, his no-longer-white overcoat bundled up under it. The ash-darkened fabric rested in a perfect package between his arm and side. Kihyun took it with his other hand and held it.

He walked towards the throne. Stopped at the stair underneath it. Extended his arm.

The king took his time before he reached for the bundle, eyeing it as though the brocade hid another spark of great fire within, waiting to be let out and swallow him.

His hands empty, Kihyun left the throne hall. He had a lot of washing to do, and maybe a lot of tearing the steel off his burned skin.

Changkyun unwrapped the coat when he was the only person left in the hall to find a charred wooden knight in its soft folds.

 

Kihyun was born during a long autumn. It was a long autumn because it had cut off the summer mid-bloom and because it lasted throughout the day of the new year, bringing rains upon rains and leaving the ground rotten-red with leaves. The sun gone, the snow nowhere in sight, the autumn reigned over the seasons like it would never end.

That November was particularly stormy. On the night that Kihyun was born, there was no storm. People would later say different stories why. His mother would say that the silence was a sign, a premonition of who Kihyun was going to be. A sweet boy. A man who valued peace. Who provided safety.

His wet nurse would say that even the storm grew speechless upon Kihyun's birth because it recognized its equal: a knight whose strength would rival the elements one day.

The smallfolk would say that nature simply held its breath because the gods within the earth and lakes and trees knew that something was wrong. If Kihyun hadn't been born, it would have been kinder. To him. To everyone.

Kihyun came to this world at a wrong time.

After all, his father had already sired a son by his second wife by the time Kihyun was born.

Kihyun's mother was the first wife of Lord Yoo. Older than her husband, and richer, and as quiet as the day of her son's birth, the lady had very little to charm the young lord with when they'd first met apart from her dowry. For the most part, the green lordling hadn't done anything to break the reserve between them either. Regardless, they had married, and they had ruled together, and over the years Lady Yoo had garnered some love of the smallfolk, if not her husband.

Even that kind of love could only get her as far, though, and when the tenth year of their marriage had passed without an heir, Lord Yoo proclaimed his wife barren and brought another highborn lady to his house. She was a young thing, younger than him. She had a head full of hair of a rare copper colour, practically unheard of in that region of the realm. Because it reminded people of the precious metal, she was thought to be blessed.

And she was – a few months into the marriage. She gave birth to a healthy son the next spring, sealing her position as the lady of the house. Her firstborn was supposed to rule.

But then, six year later, the first Lady Yoo became pregnant and brought a boy to this world, a boy whose right to his father's title was greater. Whose birth was even more blessed than his brother's, because a woman well into her forties had carried him.

Kihyun was a small baby, so small that it startled the midwife, but apart from his size there seemed to be nothing wrong with him. He had a healthy appetite and curious hands. The top of his head smelled of milk. He hardly ever cried.

He was so small that people often forgot he was even there.

His father didn't, though. He eyed his son like he wondered where he'd even come from, like it wasn't him who'd stumbled into his first wife's chambers to sire him, but a stray dog, or some sort of half-human who'd left their pitiful creation on his doorstep.

In his mind, Lord Yoo already had an heir; an heir who was sturdy at the age of six, and already well-known in the armoury for picking up swords and swinging them. A bright boy, not a sweet one. A boy who could fight, not one who was whispered to seek out peace, as nature seemed to have predicted.

It took three years of pretending that perhaps Kihyun would prove to be better than the lord's firstborn son, or at least his equal. But Kihyun remained quiet, as quiet as his mother, as quiet as that stormless night. At three, he was as small as when he had celebrated his second birthday, and his first. Three years, and the lord had decided.

The day he sent his wife and son to the court to represent him there, which only meant “to stay there for good,” the kingdom was awaiting another arrival. The king and the courtiers and even the tiniest rats in the canals under the palace were expecting the queen to give birth.

Finally, the snow was falling. The palace stood soundless above the grey bay.

The royal midwives had claimed that the queen's belly was shaped as though she was expecting a baby girl, a small princess. But a prince was born. The whole kingdom roared and drowned in wine where there was money, and in opium where there was none. It was an event that gave hope to the already hopeful, and gave a reason to drink and overeat to the hopeless.

Changkyun and Kihyun saw the palace for the first time on the same day.

 

Kihyun wouldn't remember meeting the prince. He was only three, and Changkyun was but a baby. He would later be able to imagine the chubby newborn, but he wouldn't remember.

What he would recall even after two decades was how the moment had reshaped his childhood self. The moment when he stood above the crib, focusing on its wooden carvings rather than the baby inside, and hearing his mother say that he would become the prince's protector because his father wished it.

He was too young to comprehend much besides small nighttime stories and his mother's songs and the nurse's orders. But even this young, Kihyun could understand the weight of his father's words and wishes. Distantly, in a distorted, childish way, he vaguely understood what it meant to be a lord, and a lord's son. At three, he also already knew that he wouldn't be a lord. He never asked why. Never questioned it. Never craved to be called “the little lord” like his brother because the title held no special meaning to a child yet. From what he'd heard, his big brother would be a lord one day, and to Kihyun that was all he needed to know.

Because he was a stormless boy, Kihyun had no desire to be a lord. Not even at an early age, when jealousy could have ignited his imagination and dreams and fanciful tantrums for his rights. But Kihyun wasn't jealous of the brother he loved or the lordship whose value he didn't understand. He wasn't yet mindful of what he was being robbed of – him, or his mother.

When he was told he would be the king's knight – when he was finally told what he would be instead of wouldn't – Kihyun gripped the delicate rail of the crib. His tiny chest swelled. He peeked inside, and he saw the newborn king – but later he would only remember him as a boy already, and then a man.

“I shall protect you and I shall share my toys with you,” said Kihyun with seriousness that amused the queen and with a lisp what would never quite leave him. The ladies-in-waiting chuckled, chirping their chuckles behind ornate fans. His mother gave a shy laugh.

Kihyun wasn't sure what was funny. To him, he found something that other people didn't find until well past forty, or fifty. Some never found it.

A purpose.

 

The clearest memory Kihyun would keep of the prince wasn't when he learned to walk and began to waddle after Kihyun. It wasn't when they played together in the palace or outside its walls, running in the balmy days soothed down by the sea breeze which washed over the palace's gardens and pavilions. It wasn't the time that Changkyun cried because they'd told him he couldn't play with Kihyun anymore since young Yoo was too old now – old enough to start his training to become the future king's guard. Not even the time Changkyun snuck into the stables and tried to ride a horse so “he would be old too.”

It wasn't any of these moments, though Kihyun would see them in colours sharper than the royal painter's pieces.

The memory that wouldn't stop coming to him at odd hours showed him the prince slightly older, with a skinny body and head too big to fit it. He was stuck in that stage of childhood when children are no longer cute, but aren't handsome yet.

Three years older than him, Kihyun looked the same. The only difference was that Kihyun had become wiry from wielding swords and bows and from grappling with boys his age in melees. His face was less sweet now, too, perhaps from coming to understand why his father wanted him to be a knight and not a lord. Why he'd been shipped off to the palace with his mother while his older brother and his other mother remained at Lord Yoo's side.

He knew now what it meant to be a royal guard, so he also knew what awaited him when his boyhood ended. Royal guards didn't bear titles. They didn't take wives. Their names, although the guards could keep them, were nothing but empty sounds. Kihyun's life would be as loveless and nameless as his mother's.

Sometimes it brought a vacant streak of stillness to his expression. But more often than not, it didn't. What Kihyun had lost in sweetness in his quickly changing and sharpening face, he didn't lose on the inside. It only deepened where it came to Changkyun. Kihyun remembered his pride and sense of purpose when it had been decided that he would protect the prince. For that, the princeling's bouts of curiosity and sullenness never bothered Kihyun. His short spasms of crying didn't tire Kihyun out as they did with the prince's nurses and scholars, who'd long given up on remedying the boy's moods.

Changkyun's moods usually made the old king laugh, and he'd learned to praise his son's constantly dissatisfied character to anyone who dared to mention it because, in his words, a good king “was never satisfied with the state of things.”

What the king did watch with a growing intent was that his son was too friendly with the Yoo boy, and perhaps even too hung up on being his friend.

Had Kihyun been intended to become a lord, the king would have supported the friendship. He would have taken personal care that the boys were hand and glove, just for the sole reason of securing the future Lord Yoo's loyalty.

But Kihyun was to become one of the Kingsguard. A servant, not a lord. And while servants should be loyal to their king, a king should not be loyal to his servants.

Kihyun moved from his mother's pavilion to the barracks. He rarely saw the prince anymore, and when he did, the space and time that separated them began to alter the fashion of their friendship everytime they crossed paths.

Without being told to, Kihyun soon adopted the ways of his new peers when addressing the royal family, or anyone who stood above his new status for that matter. The training he was receiving between the ages of seven and fourteen tempered him in ways he hadn't even noticed, creating a rigid, rule-observing subject where the prince's friend once stood. His purpose had shifted from protecting the king as Yoo Kihyun to protecting the king as his servant, his guard. His shield between breathing and lying breathless.

The last time they met as sort-of-friends, Kihyun was thirteen. The dusk was deepening, the harbourfront curling by the shoreline in shades of faded figs and veins of gold. Kihyun and Minhyuk had crept out of the barracks for a short swim in the bay, stripping of their clothes and rushing into the waves. The sea's crests glimmered in gold-white, the setting sun highlighting the froth on their tips. The rest of the sea had blackened like it was night already.

They bathed and shrieked and Minhyuk played dead for a minute, just to see whether he could fool Kihyun again. (He didn't fool him, but Kihyun waded to him through the billowing waves regardless, ready to hear Minhyuk's mocking laughter.)

As Kihyun heaved him up in his arms, Minhyuk spat out water at his friend's chest and laughed his lungs out. Glancing up, he stopped short, skinny shoulders squaring back. He stood up in the shallow bay.

Kihyun had only ever seen him this lifeless in the face of their Commander. Small chills teething at the back of his neck, he straightened up as well and turned to face the cliff.

Only it wasn't the Commander at the edge of the cliff. It was the prince.

And under him, the well-known waters which hid jagged crags and scraps of shipwrecked warships that the tide had carried all the way to the foothills of the palace.

“Your Grace,” called Kihyun, seawater dripping into his eyes and mouth. “Careful! That spot is rocky!”

The boy with the too-thin body and with his too-heavy head didn't bat an eye. It was like he didn't hear Kihyun. Like he didn't respond to that title – Your Grace. He was alone, with no nurses or guards overseeing his every move.

Kihyun shivered. Why was he alone?

The prince stared at the two boys, then took a step away from the cliff. Before Kihyun could release a sigh of relief, the prince backed off several more steps, bounced off the balls of his feet, and ran back to the edge.

He jumped into the water.

 

Nothing happened to the prince that day. Either it was by sheer luck, or he knew the sea better than Kihyun had considered. In any case, he came out of the water unscathed, seaweed wrapping his limbs. He was eerie when Kihyun and Minhyuk pulled him up. Like he wasn't even breathing. The thrashing started after. They had to hold him down and drag him to the shore.

The prince would never go back to the sea. He wouldn't set foot on a ship. To everyone who insisted that the prince should participate during events like ship launchings or welcome and goodbye ceremonies when important guests visited the palace, Changkyun curtly replied that the sea terrified him.

Kihyun didn't know Changkyun well enough anymore to say whether it was true or not. It could be. But more than anything, the obstinacy with which the prince refused to go even as far as the harbourfront reminded Kihyun of his old moods.

Days down the line, Kihyun would think back to that day that Changkyun had thrown himself into the sea and realize that he may have known the waters he was hurling himself into. He may have come to the same place countless times before, sneaking out of his chambers like he used to when he wanted to follow Kihyun around.

Officially, the prince claimed to be scared of water. People eventually stopped questioning his fear, and it became real in their eyes. So when the king and queen embarked on their journey to the queen's parents in the North, Changkyun wasn't forced on the ship.

And when the ship sank and everyone with it, the kingdom still had its king.

 

One of the duties of the men of the Kingsguard was to stand sentry by the king's chambers.

The seven of them took turns. Two men would guard outside of the large, winged door, one inside to protect the king while he slept. The remaining four would sleep so they could accompany the king everywhere he went the next day, alert and rested.

Kihyun stood sentry by the king's chamber often enough, but he wasn't invited in. The nights he had spent inside, he could count on the fingers of one hand. Changkyun much preferred Hoseok's company because the gentle giant would play chess and yutnori with the sleepless king and would spin tops with him until dawn. Jooheon was a welcome companion too. His funny anecdotes coaxed a rare outburst of laughter out of the king on occasion, short but resonating all the way to the hallway.

When it was Hyunwoo's turn to stand guard inside the chamber, there were no movements to be heard through the door, no sounds. Hyunwoo wouldn't be swayed to leave his place or even speak, and the king respected it.

The ones who were usually spared the sentry duty were Minhyuk, Yoongi, and Hyungwon – Yoongi and Hyungwon because they could fall asleep while standing up like horses, and often they did, and Minhyuk because he grew bored too easily. He would end up wandering up and down the corridor, whispering with maids. Slipping his fingers under their hanboks and up, up, inside them. Then he would return to his spot and put his fingers in Kihyun's face, and Kihyun would blanch at the strangely sweet scent, and he would think that it wasn't right because the men of the Kingsguard weren't allowed to take women as their wives – or otherwise.

He knew that Minhyuk wasn't alone in breaking the rule. He'd noticed it way back when he was fourteen that he was the only one of them who hadn't been with a woman yet, and who hadn't planned to. Because it was forbidden. Because the ban on love didn't bother him as much as he'd imagined it would when he was a boy.

Years later, Kihyun still didn't plan to get to know women the way Minhyuk knew them. It was fine with him that the others sated their needs from time to time, as long as it wasn't on duty. (With Minhyuk, he was used to closing his eyes.) He didn't even mind much that his friends called him “untouched” in those rare moments that they dared to tease their small-but-deadly Commander. He chuckled with them.

Sleeping with women was something foreign to him. When the king first took someone to his bed, Kihyun had the same feeling like when the members of the Kingsguard did it. Like it was wrong.

 

“You're being loud, ser.”

Kihyun looked at the folding screen in front of the king's sleeping mat. He was sitting up, his shadow silhouetted by the full moon. Chimes tinkled by the open window in the silverdark. Apart from that, it had been dead calm in the king's chambers.

“Pardon me, Your Grace?”

“Your armour. It's loud. You're moving too much.”

Kihyun hadn't moved at all. “I beg your forgiveness, Your Grace.”

“Were you leaning against the door?”

“No, Your Grace.”

“You must've been leaning against the door. It makes the same noise when ser Lee does it.”

For a moment, Kihyun considered whether he'd truly moved or not. It sounded like something Minhyuk would do – fidget in place, rest his back against the winged door. Whistle, even.

“I shall be more careful from now on. I apologize,” said Kihyun.

“No. That won't do. I'm too awake now and you might do it again.” The mat rustled behind the screen. The king's shadow dipped into the pattern of flowering hills that spread over the soft, partitioned silk. “Come stand here.”

Kihyun obeyed. He walked towards the screen as noiselessly as he could. He stopped. The screen was his height – the king's height. Tall enough for Changkyun to have privacy when he would wash himself, or sleep, or bed women. There was nobody in his bed tonight.

“Come stand here,” ordered the king from behind the silk.

Kihyun obeyed and, slower than before, he brought his body to the other side of the screen. And stopped again.

“Are you trying to anger me, ser?”

“No, Your Grace.”

“Then do what you're told.”

Kihyun stared at his king in confusion. The king sat on the floor flooded by silver, looking foreign, like the reflection of the moon in a lake or a mirror instead of the real thing.

Hesitant, Kihyun obeyed him once more. He walked to where the king's pillow lay, a great white thing, like the belly of a big dead fish. His eyes remained locked on Changkyun, and he saw his broad shoulders loosen up a little.

“Now kneel.”

Kihyun kneeled.

“And give me your dagger.”

“My dagger?”

“Yes. So I can protect myself.”

A pang quickened his heartbeat. “I am here to protect you, Your Grace.”

But the king only chuckled, and, crumbling under his stare, Kihyun finally unfastened his dagger and put it Changkyun's upturned palm. His pale fingers closed around it. He lay back down, rolling onto his side, the weapon gripped tight.

He didn't break eye contact with the Commander until he fell asleep. Kihyun still kneeled there in the morning.

 

The first thing the king did when he entered the throne hall and spotted Kihyun standing in his designated place was walk up to him and slap him across the face with the back of his hand. Kihyun's jaw tightened. He said nothing.

It was a rare kind of occurrence: to displease the king to the point of striking someone. But Kihyun deserved the punishment.

“You killed the assassin in front of the whole court,” hissed Changkyun. “You are trained in stealth, ser. I don't doubt there were other ways to do it than right behind my back and in the eyes of everyone.”

“Yes, Your Grace,” said Kihyun even though there wasn't. There hadn't been a single way to dispose of the hired killer that wouldn't have endangered the king. “I apologize, You Grace.”

Changkyun struck him from the other side.

Kihyun tightened his jaw for the second time and said nothing.

His silence wasn't a sullen one. He could remain quiet and not feel wronged because he knew that although he'd done his job, he'd made a sloppy work of it. He'd saved his king, but he'd carried out his obligation in front of the king's courtiers and honoured guests. The dining hall had been at its liveliest, the feast tipping from joyous but respectable to a wine-soaked disorder. People had danced. People had laughed. And then, people had screamed.

Kihyun had carried out his task, but he'd failed just as greatly as he'd succeeded.

The king walked away from him and took his seat on the throne. For someone who'd drank his share of soju earlier that night, he was oddly sober. All about him was.

It lasted forever – the time between the point when the king's footsteps ceased and when he spoke again.

“Five years later, ser, and it's turned out that you had been right back then. The night of the fire. You'd been right about who'd caused it. You must be pleased that you've seen through Lord Song all along. Aren't you? You must be so pleased with yourself that you think killing in public is something I will allow.”

Kihyun didn't know what to say. Didn't know how to explain to the king that pleased was as far from what he was at that moment as possible. He was grimly glad that he'd disposed of the danger, of the hired assassin and uncovered the one who'd hired him. (He should thank Minhyuk that he was shrewd enough not to let him twist the dagger in the assassin's gut. The man had lived long enough to spill who'd paid him to put poison in the king's glass.) But he couldn't be pleased that he'd been correct this whole time.

Couldn't be pleased that the king had kept Lord Song and his son beside him for five more years after the fire, as though plunging himself off the cliff again, and again, and again.

“I am merely grateful that you are safe, Your Grace,” murmured Kihyun.

“Grateful. I wonder if you'll be grateful when you receive your punishment for the panic you've caused.”

“I will receive whatever punishment you see fit for me, Your Grace.”

“Even if it's capital punishment? I have six more swords to protect me,” said the king. The irony in his voice hardened into something else; transcended into something completely unironical. He was on another wavelength already. A wavelength that Kihyun couldn't reach. “Why do I have you, ser Yoo? There are six more men to keep me safe. Why are you here?”

Kihyun held himself back from running a thumb over the hilt of his greatsword. The twitch that threatened to course through his fingers was nearly palpable; nearly moving them. He told himself not to curl his fingertips in, his too-trained body listening and aching at the order. The last thing he desired was to appear smaller in front of his king, or nervous.

“Because I unite them,” he said at least.

“Is that so.” The king didn't even lift an eyebrow. Didn't seem to mull over his answer much. “Is that something only you can do?”

“No. Anyone worthy of the position would be able to do the same.”

“Are you worthy of it?”

“I believe so, Your Grace. It's what I've been brought up to do.” It was all he'd ever known to do. Ever wished to do.

“You would be nothing without the other guards' obedience, though. What is it that keeps them in line?” asked the king. “Why do they love you?”

The question gouged out Kihyun's throat, leaving it raw and eerily empty, as though he'd lost his vocal cords.

“Obedience isn't always about love, Your Grace.”

“What is it about then?”

Feeling more empty-handed than before, Kihyun thought short and hard. He recalled Hoseok's gentle smile and not-so-gentle hands that were there to support Kihyun whenever he called. He remembered each time that Hyunwoo had bled for him. He heard, distantly, through the sheer silk of his memories, the things Minhyuk had shared with him about this life before death – about what he used to be before he became a nameless, faceless no one, just like Kihyun.

“Devotion,” said Kihyun silently.

“Devotion?”

“Yes, Your Grace. They are devoted to me as I am devoted to you.”

Changkyun ruminated over that, face impassive though his tongue played with the word once more. Dragged it out.

“Devotion. What else, ser?”

Kihyun lifted his gaze slightly. Outfacing the king would be like outfacing the sun, so he did not try. Partly because confidence didn't pour back into him in one great stream – it dripped in oil-slow, oil-thick drops. But it prompted him to answer all the same.

“Trust.”

“Trust,” repeated Changkyun. The throne hall was dark, but the sombre restatement was suddenly darker than that. So were his eyes when they pierced through the steel lacing Kihyun's chest. “They trust you with their lives?”

“I sincerely hope so,” said Kihyun. “As I trust them with mine.”

Some of the tension fell off of his shoulders, rolling down, crumbling like ice and snow on the faraway mountain peaks in the North. The relief was brief.

“I see.”

A minute madness consumed him then, perhaps because the king sounded satisfied in that old same dissatisfied manner as always; in that half-vacant way he had about him indicating that he still wasn't convinced, but couldn't bear to continue with the conversation. Kihyun, on the other hand, couldn't bear to leave it unfinished.

“As I put my trust and devotion in you,” Kihyun heard himself saying, breathless, and too blindly open for someone who usually ‘weighed his words like grains of gold.’ Too fawning. Fawning was something the king had zero patience for. He'd learned to hate it in his youth full of solitude.

Kihyun's lips gaped for long enough to fit the same sentence between them twice. He realized his blunder. “Your Grace,” he added, shame sticking to him like scales of steel to a swordsmith's hands.

The king glossed over the confession – and the error.

“You are my servant. It is your God-given duty to put your trust in me,” he said simply.

“Not if you weren't a good king.” Kihyun cursed the day the gods parted his mouth in two and gave him the ability to speak. Still, he couldn't stop. Couldn't leave the king soak in his hated but preciously cherished half-truths. “Not if you weren't just.”

“Who are you to judge whether a king is good or just?”

“As long as I have my judgement, I can judge that.”

The boy king remained quiet, and in the shadows it wasn't clear whether he was studying Kihyun, or whether he was staring through him. Instead of chilling Kihyun, the calm, flat planes of his king's face let another drop of bravery suffuse and soothe the parched wasteland within him. The silence between them wasn't as accusing anymore. It was just – silence.

But it didn't last.

“Why should I trust you, ser?”

Kihyun was ready for the question because he'd seen it in the manner the king looked at him a thousand times before. He'd heard it inside his own head, in the king's low murmur, even though Changkyun had yet to utter the words openly. Never, until now. The question was a constant that Kihyun would fight against over and over, equally without words because to address the distrust in his king's eyes would mean to admit he'd noticed it.

He'd questioned his own self at the deadest hours of the night, turning the contents of his soul over and searching for that black vein of betrayal the king seemed to be waiting for to pulse open one day. But there was nothing there. Nothing of that sort. No seed of rebellion sprouting its roots and blossoms through the soil of Kihyun's thoughts; no ambition to overthrow the king.

Kihyun had been waiting for Changkyun to finally crack and say it. He'd almost wished to hear it so he could disprove of the king's doubts, loud and clear.

That the king was finally laying the charge on him still hurt Kihyun in ways he hadn't expected. He braced himself before he spoke.

“Because you've known me your whole life, Your Grace. Because I have nobody and nothing outside of you, and my life ends when your does. Because if I ever betrayed you, that would be the demise of everyone and everything that used to belong to me. My parents. My brother. My former family's vassals and subjects.” It was simultaneously easier and harder to speak. Kihyun knew his heart, and spoke it well. But he didn't know the king's. “Because I am yours to kill.”

The last part caused Changkyun to flit his gaze towards the sword at Kihyun's side. There was something unsettling about the grim gleam under his hooded eyelids, and Kihyun could not quite swear on it, but the king looked like he either pictured himself breaking that sword, or breaking Kihyun.

Looked like he considered it.

Then, the macabre mask had gone, and Changkyun gave a colourless chuckle.

“And because you are devoted to me,” he mocked, still colourless, still like a sea of grey and salt and everything sterile – sterile but sea-deep in this world. “Because you trust your king.”

“Yes, Your Grace.”

The king lifted his head from his hand. “But do you love him?”

Kihyun froze in place.

“Your Grace?”

“Do you love your king?” repeated Changkyun. Clearer. Colder.

A moment passed. “As any of your subjects.”

“I'm not asking about other subjects. I'm not asking about seamen at the harbour or stable boys in the courtyard. Do you love your king, ser Yoo?”

“Of course,” said Kihyun. “Of course, Your Grace.”

There it was again. The dissatisfaction that came with every and any answer the king received. His upper lip curled up.

“Go.”

Kihyun had heard his king's final order one too many times before to overstay his welcome. Taking the two slaps with him, he went.

What he also took was a seed of chaos, stuck under his rib and ready to sprout.

 

He'd been put off the sentry duty for over a month when Changkyn called him back at last. That night, Kihyun had to stand guard inside the king's chambers. The bedroom smelled of rosewater and powder, left there by this court lady or other like a royal seal that she'd had him. The scent was barely a lingering imprint in the air, but Kihyun could smell it with each breath he drew in. It stung and scratched in his nostrils.

“You're being loud again, ser.”

Kihyun hadn't moved an eyelash. He knew better than to protest, though.

“Would you like me to walk over, Your Grace?”

No response. Not for a while.

“Come, ser.”

Kihyun obeyed and crossed the edge of the softly coloured screen with its magnolia-heavy hills. He stood at the head of the king's sleeping mat.

The king wasn't lying down yet. He was standing up, tying the sash of his sleeping robe. The garment stuck to his skin wetly in places, the same way after he'd washed himself, but Kihyun knew it was sweat. His mouth was kissed-out.

There was a smear of rouge in the corner of his lips.

The chamber, the furniture. The man before him moved moonless. It would have been too dark to see if Kihyun hadn't gone through his training – the training that had made him into a killer of killers. He was used to utter, unbroken blackness. And he was familiar with this room despite entering it so scarcely. He knew its corners and shapes. Its sparse but priceless decorations. Kihyun knew everything in these chambers.

Even the king.

“Kneel,” said the king, indifferent. Just as Kihyun had expected.

Looking down, Kihyun spotted a piece of clothing the court lady had forgotten there, crumpled like gutted out skin. Shiny, satiny skin. If he looked hard enough, he could recognize the thread and the pattern of the jeogori and put a name to the woman who'd been here earlier. He lifted his eyes quickly and kneeled down, the steel of his knee guards scraping the satin.

The king stopped toying with the sash of his robe. He tied a sober knot and turned to glance down at Kihyun. Kihyun gazed up.

“You are a skilled fighter, ser, and you're skilled with your words. But you know nothing about manners.”

“Your Grace?”

Changkyun nodded to the jeogori on the floor.

“The lady won't thank you for ruining her clothes.”

“Oh.” Stiff, and too sheepish to speak, Kihyun backed off. Shuffled backwards, bones creaking. Tried not to think about how ridiculous he looked.

Changkyun swept the jeogori away with his foot. Kihyun wondered what were the manners in that.

“Back.”

Processing the order, and then understanding it, Kihyun rigidly put his knees closer to the mat.

He gazed back up at his king, hoping that it was all.

He didn't feel his knees hurt because he'd unlearned to feel it.

“It is peculiar to me that something so matter-of-course would slip past you, ser. Do you normally ruin your women's clothes?” The king still didn't lie down. He didn't sit. Short as he was, he towered above Kihyun. His face swam in darkness. “Do you perhaps tear them off?”

Kihyun blanched. “The men of the Kingsguard are not allowed to bed women, Your Grace.”

The response earned him a snort. “But they do bed them.”

“Everyone must act according to their conscience, Your Grace,” said Kihyun. He wasn't about to agree with his king and give his fellow guards away. But he wouldn't lie to him.

One lie, and the king would never trust him.

He would never begin to trust him.

“How old are you, ser?”

“Twenty two, Your Grace.” As you already know, sat on the tip of his tongue.

“Twenty two, and you are telling me that you haven't been with a woman?”

Kihyun fell silent. “I haven't, Your Grace.”

“Not once?”

“No. It was not allowed when I was in training, and now it is forbidden under the threat of losing my title as the Commander of the Kingsguard.” He would be defrocked and forced to walk out of the palace with only shame to his name. He would be stripped of the last title he held.

“So you've never even touched a woman?”

Untouched.

“No, Your Grace.”

“Do you prefer men?”

“Pardon?”

“Do you touch men instead?”

“No,” he said with a flush. “I don't – I don't. I heed the rules.”

“The rules don't tell you not to sleep with men.”

“It's the same principle.” His throat closed up. “Your Grace,” he added.

“If it was the same principle, then you would have to be demoted for this,” said the king, and he came forth without warning, a black outline made of movements so fluid that Kihyun didn't flinch back. A hand took his face, ungentle, pressing to the point of denting the soft planes underneath his cheekbones. One cold finger pad tapped his cheek.

Kihyun realized that it had been inside a woman.

“That's not the same, Your Grace,” he spoke thickly. His head tilted back because of the king's grip. “Even when we kill, we need to touch others. Sometimes we have no choice but to beat the enemy to death, or strangle them. But that's not...”

As he said it, Changkyun dipped his thumb down his throat, following his voice. Nuzzling it, in a deathly sort of way.

“Strangle them,” repeated Changkyun. “Have you ever strangled a man?”

“Yes.”

“But you haven't touched one. In the punishable sense.”

“No, Your Grace.”

“What if the king himself ordered you to do it?” His eyes locked onto Kihyun's. “To bed a woman. To hold a man. To choke a man.”

“You wouldn't ask that. You're a good king.”

Changkyun laughed. It was the kind of laugh Kihyun had heard seep through the door on those nights that Jooheon would stand sentry in the king's chambers.

Kihyun hadn't caused it before, not once, and it startled him.

“A good king who is loved by his servant.” The king laughed low in his throat.

“Yes, Your Grace,” said Kihyun. He told himself that he was relieved, because if he told himself that resolutely enough and long enough, it would become a reality. It was a relief, this star-small change of the topic. He was still being – caressed – but at least the king wasn't talking about it anymore.

“A king whose servant would die for him,” carried on Changkyun, his hand gliding up to comb through Kihyun's hair.

“Yes, Your Grace,” he replied, hushed; hushed because he was becoming calm again. Death was his topic. His forte. It was why he was born.

“A servant who loves me and who would die for me, but who won't touch me,” remarked Changkyun. He gripped the strands waving softly over Kihyun's forehead and pulled them back, revealing a faded burn scar. It had paled to the shade of raw salmon. The spot looked tender. Changkyun grazed it with his thumb.

Head tipped back, Kihyun had no answer.

No answer at all.

Just as still, the king ceased to speak. He combed through Kihyun's hair several more times, fingering the strands, roving over his warm scalp, the skin turning hotter under the king's hand. Changkyun soon grew motionless, the back of Kihyun's head still in his hold. He watched the kneeling Commander until he grew bored of it.

He let go, and lay down, and rolled onto his side. He closed his eyes.

He didn't ask for the dagger.

 

Chapter Text

On his first night off after four days of kneeling by the king's bed, Kihyun didn't get the rest he'd been hoping for.

His instinct had yet to fail him, which was why he knew that it wasn't just the ache in his knees briefly tearing him from his unsatisfactory sleep, nor a crash of the seawaves against the cliffs at the foothills of the palace, but something else. An agelong alertness filled his flesh and Kihyun became certain that it wasn't his own sensation driving him to sit up and capture the darkness, or a sound outside the palace. It was a presence, and it let out a rattling exhale as Kihyun closed his hand around it.

He expected to see eye-to-eye with death, but all he saw was his reason to live.

“Your Grace,” rasped Kihyun, his hand coiling back to his body. He pressed it into the seam of his rib cage like he was made of molasses and his chest could open up to swallow the limb and lock it up, covering its skin-like surface with a quickly thickening sugary crust.

By gods. He'd nearly killed his king.

“Ser Yoo,” muttered the king. Thrown off-guard, he traced his throat. The crown he wore sat on his head in a harsh outline, reflecting white and looking like it was wrought of crushed crystals alone. “Those are some impressive reflexes.”

“I beg your forgiveness, Your Grace,” said Kihyun. His voice rushed out of him as breathless as he was. “I thought you were... I didn't know it was you.”

“Who were you expecting?”

“Nobody. That's why I...” he trailed off.

The hand he still held at his chest throbbed as though all of his nerves had migrated there, tingling as they tried to reconstruct the too-small space and make themselves at home. At the same time, the thing didn't feel like his hand at all. It was a stranger attached to his wrist. Kihyun wouldn't lay his hand on the person he was sworn to protect. He couldn't.

Eyes blazing black, the king regarded Kihyun as he struggled to speak. He took mercy on him, but only in the sense that he spoke up in his stead.

“I came to see whether you were telling the truth.” He gave Kihyun's solitary chamber a glance. It was as thorough as it was fleeting. “It must be nice to have all of this for yourself since the Commander doesn't have to share his rooms with anyone else. I've heard stories of knights who abused that privilege. Knights who put up an upright front, but took women to their beds because of this little illusion of privacy.”

Kihyun took the accusation in. “There's nobody here, Your Grace.”

“I am here.”

His thoughts blackened. His subconscious was a siren calling to him that something was wrong, so wrong again, and Kihyun was a ship that couldn't see.

Then he saw it. The king wasn't just stooping down above him to bore into his face. He was sitting beside Kihyun on the sleeping mat.

He sprung to his feet. His body became as foreign to him as his hand a moment before – a clumsy stack of meat trying to bow to his king and stand at attention at the same time. His composure, his control, his hard-earned self-possession collecting in his bones for close to two decades – it all had gone. He was a boy again, peering into a crib and unable to make out his king's features.

Sitting in Kihyun's shadow, Changkyun merely moved to look up at him.

“The last time I saw you undressed, it was in the water.”

Kihyun flushed. He tightened the sash of his sleeping robe.

He hadn't been just not dressed back then, he'd been stark naked. Naked, with waves lapping at him, rolling against his thighs.

Tranquil, the king gave him a slow once-over.

“You've grown, ser.”

“Your Grace – you cannot be here. The other guards will search for you –”

“They won't.”

“Of course they will. It's their duty to watch over your every step. Once they notice that you're gone –”

“They won't notice a thing. I have my ways to go around the palace unnoticed, ser.”

“But...” Kihyun wavered. “The guard in your chambers...?”

“Jooheon is older than me, but he handles his liquor like a newborn,” said Changkyun.

Kihyun had nothing else to do but gape.

Jooheon, dodging duty? Getting drunk with the king when he was supposed to guard him?

He kept losing the fabric of his composure one thread at a time.

“Have you ever done this before, Your Grace?” he asked voicelessly.

“On occasion,” replied the king, gazing up at Kihyun without a shred of guilt or hesitation. He had no urge to conceal his disobedience, and to Kihyun, the apathy with which the king sat there was one of the most frustrating sights he'd ever had to witness. He was sober too – Kihyun could tell.

It made the whole situation so much worse.

“But going around at night without any of the guards is dangerous,” he barked. His pulse plummeted as he recalled the nights when he would stand outside the king's door and listen to the sounds inside, not knowing that Changkyun could have been gone, off to meet his lovers or wander alongside the harbourfront, even. “You could have been hurt. You could have been killed.”

“Perhaps,” said the king. He shifted slightly, bringing himself into a more comfortable position. He settled kneeling with his front towards Kihyun. “But right now I'm in the safest place in the whole palace.”

Kihyun lost his mouth. Lost his tongue.

The single sentence tore through him with an earth-splitting strength, erasing every sign of disbelief Changkyun had ever shown him, every backhanded slap. Every drop of spit hissed his way when the king drowned in his half-truths and needed somebody to drown with him.

The sweetness that had never gone away, but that he'd forgotten to feel, came to stick his lips together.

The safest place in the palace. His chambers.

Questions bred in his head like larvae. One of them forced its way to the front.

“Have you – have you ever been here before? When you left your chambers like this?” asked Kihyun.

“No. Was I supposed to?”

“No – no.”

“I wonder why, though. I wonder why it's so forbidden to follow you. Why it's always been something I shouldn't do.”

Kihyun thought of his clearest memory: the cliff, the purple dusk. The dead defiance disfiguring Changkyun's neck and eyes as he'd jumped.

“It's because you're the king,” said Kihyun softly, “and I should serve you.”

“I'm your king,” repeated Changkyun. “And yet you're standing there and I'm kneeling here.”

With a hum in his ears, he realized the imbalance. He dove down to help Changkyun get up. Changkyun shook his hands off.

“Don't. Stand up straight, ser. That's an order.”

“Your Grace –”

“An order, ser!”

Shrinking into himself, Kihyun slowly straightened up, joints clicking into their place in a broken clockwork. He stared down at Changkyun, who returned the stare.

“What is it like?” he asked after a while. “Knowing that the whole kingdom kneels before me, but I kneel before you?”

“Your Grace, please,” implored Kihyun, restraining himself from falling to the floor and displeasing his king all over again.

“Please, what? You always plead for something, ser. For forgiveness. For the right to speak. Or for your king to behave so your job is easier. You beg me so much that you could almost make it seem like you're the only one begging.”

Kihyun lost his tongue again, and with it everything else that could have urged a sound out of him. Eyes wide. Soul shrunken into the size of a plum stone. He took roots where he stood, but surprise didn't cause it. The king's words didn't shock him; not quite, not yet.

On some level, Kihyun could already crack the meaning of the oddly obscure remark, but that was entirely the work of logic and his quick mind. The real understanding still hadn't reached him – hadn't reached the rest of him, where his reason wasn't concerned anymore and his heart took the reins. There was a block within him that stopped him from grasping Changkyun's words, a border barring parts of him from the harm, protecting it from his protectee.

The king soaked in his silence. Then, after an almost agonizing while, he stirred and held his arm out.

“You can help me rise now, ser.”

Kihyun went to him with rushy hands, his grip fluttering from the king's wrist to the underside of his forearm. He heaved him up and pulled away in no time. His fingers slid over the king's.

The palace wailed, clay and pinewood and granite settling like the whole thing wished to sink into the ground. A spray of waves spazzed over the foundations of the palace somewhere underneath, deep below where they stood.

They stood a touch away from each other. Their breaths grew humid between them.

“Kneel,” said Changkyun, not once taking his eyes off Kihyun.

Kihyun obeyed.

“Arms behind your back.”

His limbs listened to the request before he could rationalize why he shouldn't do it. He clasped his own wrist with his other hand so his arms would stay in locked in place.

Like the king, Kihyun kept looking. He searched for lines in that blank, no longer boyish face – lines that would liven it up. Curious lines that would tell he was simply killing time doing his favourite thing: testing Kihyun. Laughter lines that would ridicule the blindness with which Kihyun carried out every command, however pointless it was.

Even those deep-set cracks revealing Changkyun's wrath.

Anything.

Give him anything, he would take it.

The king's expression stayed the same. It was his posture that changed. His silhouette slithered down in the dark, fluid like a falling piece of fabric, only slower. He sank down, caging Kihyun's thighs with his. His body remained straight-backed as he sat all the way down, shifting his weight fully onto Kihyun.

The Commander stiffened. He held his wrist so hard that he might cut off his pulse.

“You can't...” he started, hoarse. The shapeless theory that he'd toyed with barely minutes before floated back up in the plateau of his mind. It had gone from the shade of mist to the shade of milk, growing more solid, its sharp peaks and tips sizzling, its edges crystallizing.

He couldn't. They couldn't.

They couldn't do what the king wanted, whatever it was that he'd been – begging for.

“Why not? Why the fuck can't I?” the king shot back. He gave a quiet snort. He didn't even move a muscle, his facade flawless. “Is it because you love being untouched more than you love your king?”

“No, Your Grace,” said Kihyun, realizing he'd been omitting the honorific for some time now. “It's because you are untouchable.”

Changkyun went still.

With him stilled time, stilled the tide, stilled everything save for the constantly shaping and reshaping clumps of smoke inside Kihyun's head.

One moment, the king had his arms stagnant at his sides. The other, he draped them loosely over Kihyun's shoulders without leaning in. The ends of his fingers stabbed the back of Kihyun's skull, sending a dull throb through him. They hurt. They hurt in ways Kihyun had become too indestructible to be hurt in.

But people aren't indestructible.

One graze of skin on skin, and it destroyed Kihyun from the shell to the core. The titles he'd been forced to forego, the new title he held so dear, his old name and his new purpose, they rose in a cloud of dust, carried everywhere. As he gazed up at his king, he was a mighty deer who would have been able to defend himself and charge ahead with his head low and his antlers ready – had he not remained rooted in spot by some primordial instinct to stay and stare and be hunted down. The ash he'd become upon a single touch was settling back as a scattered layer. It didn't have the shape of a man anymore. He was as shapeless as his thoughts. He only felt the shape of Changkyun's hands as they cradled his head.

“Remember when you used to help me climb walls? When we played with the same toys and I would wrestle you for the wooden knight and I would win because you were so small? It was normal for us to hold hands back then. I was the same king that I'm now. The same person.”

“You weren't a king then,” said Kihyun.

“But I was your prince.”

“It's not the same – we were children at that time.”

“And now we are men.”

His skin was suddenly too small to wrap his body, too tight, and he didn't know why. He remorphed everywhere. Changkyun noticed the change. He couldn't have missed it.

Glancing down, he slid his legs wider apart to let Kihyun's half-hard cock spring up. Robes rustled over robes. Kihyun sucked in a breath, sensing the slither of the silk whisper over the head of his hard-on.

As his lips parted, Changkyun dove down and brushed them with his.

“Your Grace –” he blurted.

“Quiet.”

“We can't –”

“I said quiet. I won't be told what I can and cannot do from someone who calls himself a servant. Pick a side, ser. Either give commands, or take them.”

“I can't take this one, Your Grace,” said Kihyun hoarsely. “Whether I want it or not, I can't – I can't. I don't care what else it costs me, but it would also cost me the place beside you. That's not worth it.”

Changkyun watched him without a single gleam in his eyes.

“Whether you want it or not,” he repeated, voice low. He chased the burning warmth on the back of Kihyun's neck. “So you want it.”

“What does it matter what I want?” whispered Kihyun. “You're my ruler.”

Changkyun didn't respond. Instead, he placidly took off his crown and lowered it. Kihyun reeled back as Changkyun reached towards him, but he was too late to react. The crown already sat above his temples like the weight of the world, a myriad of ornaments and shredded white gemstones brushing sharp against his scalp.

“You be the king.”

“That's not how it works,” retorted Kihyun with a flush.

“Says who? Nobody can tell who's who in the dark.”

“But I will know. Please, Your Grace. Don't ask this of me. I can't break the oath I've taken in the name of the king – not even because of the king.”

Crashing, crashing, crashing again, countless sprays of sea foam threw themselves against the cliffs. Synchronized with the sound, Changkyun slowly slid lower in his seat and straddled Kihyun above the knees. The ounce of space between them did little to alleviate Kihyun's anxiety.

“I won't make you break it,” said Changkyun.

He said it with such honesty that Kihyun trusted him, and it soothed him the same as it terrified him. Before he could thank the king, or beg the king, Changkyun lay a hand where Kihyun's robe parted. He dragged it down his chest, taking care to trace the skin on every part of his path. He glided over the tied up sash and underneath it, palm pressed against Kihyun's abdomen.

When he fastened his fingers around Kihyun's shaft, Kihyun let out a gasp. There was no surprise in it. Just pleasure.

Changkyun spoke up in a way that Kihyun wouldn't have been able to hear it if they hadn't been so close.

“You will touch yourself when I walk out.” He tightened his grip, holding the hot heartbeat in his hand. Kihyun's body tensed with every throb of his cock. “You will go on until you spill. You won't breach any promise that way, but you'll do what I ask of you. I want to see you in the morning and I want to know that you came.”

The seam of Kihyun's lips stayed sealed, but there was resignation in his silence.

Resignation? Kihyun had never lied and he wasn't keen on starting now. Resignation would mean that he didn't want this; that he wasn't a man-sized storm waiting to be released.

Whether the king had sensed the static anticipation he teemed with, or whether it was his own anticipation, he ducked down and put his mouth over Kihyun's. He angled Kihyun's head up with both hands, letting go of his shaft, leaving it out in the slight sting of the cold.

Then, with one last pause just a second away from his lips, the king kissed him.

A kiss, and Kihyun discovered the reason why the smallfolk loved to tell stories about kings falling for their subjects, and about knights just falling.

The contact was too hot, and too clammy, and Kihyun thought back to swinging a sword for the first time, blanked out because of how much concentration the seemingly simple slab of steel sapped out of him. He clumsily kept his fist clenched at his sides, opening his mouth a crack to take the king's tongue in.

Kihyun groaned, causing the same sound spiral out of Changkyun. They grasped each other, arms winding around backs and waists, searching for how to bring their bodies closer together. The cool silk of Changkyun's clothes was a balm on his skin as the king lay into him, their rib cages ticking at the same time.

It stopped as quickly as it had begun.

Chest heaving, the king caressed every dip and plane of the black shadow he was casting over Kihyun.

“You are a very bad kisser, ser,” he chuckled, mirthless. “It pleases me a lot.”

“Pleases you?” echoed Kihyun.

“Yes. It tells me that you're truly untouched, just like your little friends say.”

Kihyun coloured. Knowing that the king must've heard Minhyuk or Hoseok making merciless fun of him shamed him just as bad as the jab itself. He cleared his throat.

“Well. I'm not untouched anymore,” he whispered.

“But you are. You're still very much untouched,” said the king, boring into him from under his hooded eyelids. “And you'll stay that way. For me.”

Noiselessly, he stood up. He threw a glance at Kihyun groin, raising an eyebrow in what could have been amusement. His mouth didn't move. Taking the crown off Kihyun's head, he clutched it tight, turned around, and walked away.

When he walked out, he left Kihyun something what he hadn't been before.

Incomplete.

 

His hand on the hilt of the sword tightened. It was a common sensation, the slight stickiness creasing in the branched-out lines of his palm underneath the leather glove. The morning was humid and rainy. The coast lay in a spread of salty mist. Above it, the palace had gone through its early bustle and quieted again. Sentries were relieved. Breakfast was made. The king sat down to eat.

The low, long table stood at a far end of the dining hall. Changkyun liked to be alone when he had his meals, but the court etiquette didn't allow that, so the room constantly shifted with a small swarm of eaters and ministers and musicians. Even over the murmur of bronze bells and zithers, the courtiers could still hear the rain. The sea. The sweet and salty water coming together to soak wooden dams and boats and hanoks at the harbourfront. To make the wood swell and rot.

Lady Son, the Minister of Justice, had her head inclined towards the young king. A colourless sun glazed the side of her face. Her profile looked like it could belong to a woman ten years younger – or ten years older. But so did Changkyun's, sometimes.

Kihyun pressed it aside.

The breakfast banquet stretched on. Kihyun stood straight-faced behind the king's seat, hand on the hilt, eyes everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Everywhere, so he could see everyone's eyes. Nowhere, so nobody could catch his.

“I will not attempt talk you out of it, Your Grace,” said lady Son.

“You won't?” drawled the king. Uninterested and all too intense at once. A flick of the wrist, and a servant quickly brought a chosen dish within Changkyun's reach. Another flick, the servant was gone.

Lady Son subtly shook her head no. “I can understand where the other lords and ladies' misgivings come from in questioning the severity of your order, but I agree that a crime of an exceptional degree deserves an exemplary punishment. It is because Lord Song used to hold such high titles and such power that I support the decision fully. Others must see that their blue blood or bought seats in the council won't save them from justice.”

“Am I safe in leaving the palace in your care then, while I'm away to oversee that my order is carried out?” asked the king.

“You can count on me, Your Grace.”

Of all the people greasying their faces at the feast, Lady Son was the one Kihyun would entrust the kingdom with – and the king. Seeing her beside Changkyun filled him with a relief of sorts. He remembered Lady Son from those times when he was a boy and she too young to be called a woman. She didn't have her ladyship then. Her gaze was as sharp as her wit. She'd always been brutally honest. Years back, she'd teased Kihyun mercilessly about his size, chuckling that he would have done better as a court singer than a guard.

She and Kihyun's mother had been close once. Up until Lady Yoo had taken sick, lay down to rest a little, and didn't get up.

“You will of course be surrounded by my guards while you hold the throne for me,” remarked Changkyun.

“Naturally, Your Grace,” said Lady Son.

When the banquet was over, the king rose, gave his goodbyes, and walked out. Kihyun clung to his side as a shadow. He was moving smoke. He had no substance, no purpose until he had to kill.

They passed through the Crystal Corridor. Washed-out light twinkled through glass pillars and ceilings. The sea lay underneath them, smooth from the shore to the horizon, swallowing up raindrops. A cluster of black cliffs stabbed at the sky below the corridor, distorted by the crystalline texture of the walls.

The passage served as a bridge between the king's personal chambers and the remaining wings of the palace. It could carry a thousand men and their horses, but it could also shatter with one well-thought-out tap and shelter the king from the enemy.

They were passing above the void when Changkyun spoke up.

“Was it good, ser? The decision I announced this morning?” He glanced over. “Was it just?”

Kihyun slowed down to match the king's strides.

“Yes, Your Grace.”

I take it that you support me in making an example out of Lord Song and his son – and their people. You agree with the severity of the punishment.

“I do, Your Grace,” said Kihyun, though it wasn't without worry.

He did support the verdict. It could be seen as cruel by the masses, but it was needed. At the same time, his guts congealed at the idea of Changkyun leaving the palace for so long to oversee the process. Of him leaving after five years of knowing nothing but these walls and these faces, leaving for the place where the fire had nearly scorched him to ashes and bones.

Leaving.

“What do you think of the decision to leave Lady Son in care of the council while I'm gone?” asked the king.

“Her ladyship is best suited for the task.”

The king mulled over his answer.

“I would like to have your certainty on these matters,” he commented and quickened his pace.

You have it , Kihyun wished to say. All I have is yours .

The nightingale floors in the king's wing started to sing underneath their feet as they entered. Creaking, chirping with each step. Like they were walking over warblers and breaking their lovely bodies in a funeral march. It was a silent sound, and judging from Changkyun's facade, he barely registered it, but the assassin within Kihyun heard every squeak.

After a moment, the creaking ceased. The king stopped in front of his study room and spared a glance to the empty spot by the door where Minhyuk should have been standing.

Changkyun regarded the vacant space. Something akin to amusement curled the corner of his mouth.

“I suppose ser Lee is patrolling the halls,” said Changkyun.

He could have accused Kihyun of having no control over his men and it would have shamed him the same. Maybe it would have shamed him less because then he could respond to Changkyun's charges openly. What he couldn't do was battle the king's irony.

So he kept quiet.

The king turned to face him, forgetting about Minhyuk's glaring absence.

“You will accompany me on the way.”

Kihyun's heart leapt. “Yes, Your Grace.”

“Don't look so honoured. You're not going because I trust you. You're going because I distrust you the least.”

“That does honour me, Your Grace.”

A smirk that didn't say anything positive passed over the king's lips and waned.

“The rest of the Kingsguard will go too. They will secure the prisoners and see that we're not attacked on the road. But you will stay at my side, day and night.”

“Yes, Your Grace.”

Yes, Your Grace? Don't you need sleep, ser?”

“I can manage to stay alert on one hour a day.”

The king's gaze stuck to his skin. “Is that so? How did you sleep last night, ser?”

Hand on his shaft. The other on his throat. Moans.

Blood rushed to darken Kihyun's cheeks. Sleep was the last thing he'd done. His fingers curled around the steel of his sword, the tips as sweaty as his palms.

Yesterday he'd sunken back to his sheets, chasing the king's scent with his face in the fabric. He'd heeded the order, working himself with his eyes tight shut, retracing the touches Changkyun had left over his chest and abdomen.

Changkyun's mouth curved. The corners of his eyes tipped upwards. A sheen glazed his all-black irises. It was half-grotesque, how his whole countenance changed. Kihyun was so used to him being expressionless that the perfect synchronization of mimic muscles looked like his flesh had been pulled back by a set of strings. And yet Changkyun seemed softer, as though a carved-out hole in a frowning mask had been flipped upside down into a grin. He seemed satisfied.

“I see that you listened to my command.”

“Yes,” whispered Kihyun.

“What did you think of?”

His jaw moved to speak, but held himself back. He bore into the man in front of him and Changkyun absorbed the stare. Soaked the devotion or desperation in. The slant of the king's smile teetered on drunk before he grew sober again, and unsmiling. The connection cracked.

“You said you can survive on one hour of sleep a day. I'll grant you five. Ser Chae will take your place while you rest.”

Kihyun nodded in assent. Anticipation weighed on his shoulders. Wetted the tip of his tongue. His skin still blazed where the king could see it and yet he was already willing to burn again.

As if sensing what Kihyun was waiting for, pleading for, the king dropped the subject entirely.

“Now give me your advice, ser. Should the Golden Cloaks travel with us?”

“I would recommend they remain here, Your Grace,” he said, collecting himself from his stupor. “They are better trained to defend this place than anyone else. They know every nook and cranny of it, and should a rebellion break from within the palace, they will be able to get you and your men back inside to retake it. Take regular soldiers with you. They are used to long travels and know how to fight in the open.”

Changkyun didn't thank him for the advice, nor did he imply whether he would take it or not. All about him was dead. Dead again.

If Changkyun was a sea, he would be an out-of-this-world sea that never ripples. A colourless colossus whose movements stay hidden to the naked eye and who only lives under the surface. He'd be a liquid mirror that soaks up everything and never gives it back, but holds it within for the world to see how much he'd taken.

“Who do you suggest I leave in charge of the Golden Cloaks?” spoke the king.

“Ser Son,” shot Kihyun without hesitation. “Hyunwoo commands respect amongst the palace and city guards alike. He will oversee that nobody steps out of line.” Not even the lords and ladies.

“Two Sons, ruling the kingdom,” remarked the king.

“It is but a coincidence, Your Grace. Her ladyship is in no way related to ser Son.”

“Our mothers used to be friends. Do you remember?”

The question perplexed Kihyun. He studied the king to see where the shift of topic had come from, which depths had pushed it to the forefront. How dark they were.

“Yes,” he said cagily. “I remember.”

“They would always talk about their two sons ruling the kingdom one day. Two sons, in charge of everything and each other.” Changkyun held his gaze for a while, then refocused it to the empty sentry spot by the door. “Handle your men better, lord Commander, before I change my mind and take ser Son with me instead of you.”

Kihyun bowed to take the command and the jab, the back of his head buzzing. As Changkyun retreated to his study room, Kihyun had to tighten his hand around the hilt of his sword to stop himself from reaching out and bringing him back.

He stood there alone with his head hung low until the silence hummed too loud in his ears. Then he lifted his eyes and fixed them on the closed door. No sounds came from within. Had Kihyun been one to pretend, he could imagine the rustle of robes or the shiver of a brush over rice paper. Instead it was the king's voice that filled his mind. Asking advice. Asking who Kihyun had thought about when he'd soiled himself.

Soon enough, the hushed hall began to warble. The nightingale floor creaked and groaned under Minhyuk's march, alerting Kihyun of his arrival while he was still two corners away.

They didn't greet each other. Minhyuk glided to his appointed place, an effortless air around him, long limbs retaking the space as though he'd never left it.

“The king noticed you were gone,” cautioned Kihyun.

“He was supposed to be at breakfast.”

“He was, and then he left because he'd finished eating,” said Kihyun stonily.

“Not my fault he was so fast today.”

“Minhyuk, this is no joking matter. He could behead you for this.”

“I know, lord Commander. It's not a joke. But do you know what is?” goaded Minhyuk as he turned to smile at Kihyun. He was too handsome, and too sunny, and although he was indispensable, he went missing all too often.

Kihyun understood why it plagued the king so much – that he depended on people who could let him down if they chose to, and sometimes even if they didn't.

“Did your milk maids tell you another story about a drunken lord who came to the kitchens to piss on the floor?” inquired Kihyun with more irony than interest. Even the irony was half-dead, like the king's.

“No, dear Commander. Those stories are getting boring. There's too many drunks and too little floor to piss on,” Minhyuk dismissed him. “Besides, I wasn't with a maid this time.”

“You need to stop sleeping with highborn ladies.”

“Why? I'm highborn too.”

“Were.”

“I'm still highborn even though I'm a nameless no one.”

“That's not the point, Minhyuk. You mustn't –”

“Do you want to hear the funny thing or not?” Minhyuk interrupted him, a sheet of chainmail tinkling on his chest as he made himself comfortable against the wall.

Kihyun expected very little. Regardless, he heard himself uttering: “Yes. Tell me.”

“I heard that the king likes having his arse licked. Like a dog.”

An ugly breed of thickness crawled up his throat, similar to disgust, but it wasn't.

“Who told you that nonsense?”

“How do you know it's nonsense?”

“It's...”

Minhyuk watched him struggle to speak. His lips parted with a wet sound as he grinned wider and wider. Still he looked too handsome, too sunny. Still he could get away with everything.

Sometimes Kihyun felt like one of his whores.

 

Smoke rose from the valley in a thick, ever-folding film. The higher it surged, the slower it was. Crisper. Falling apart from a solid steel wall to translucent mist that shone orange-red with embers. Even higher, it greyed down with ashen flakes. The sight before Kihyun spread like a column of colours: brightest at the bottom where Lord Song's pavilion burned, dark-gold in the middle where the smoke met the sun, and grey, just grey at the top where it coated the sky.

The pavilion was on fire, and so was the Song family trapped in its walls.

Kihyun couldn't hear them shriek for mercy from his vantage point at the top of a mountain cliff. But he'd seen many fires. Been in many. Started many. He knew how people screamed when they scorched alive, blazing tongues eating away at their hair and flesh and bones, flames roaring to the faces of the dying as if to say: you're burning now, but I've been burning from the very beginning, and I will die burning too.

Apart from Kihyun and his king, the mountaintop was lonesome. They were on horseback, their stallions giving an occasional whicker. The horses' great heads bowed down from time to time to glimpse at the fire and darted back up, snorting out more sounds. They were bored.

By his right, Changkyun appeared every bit as bored. He watched the rolling clouds of grey and black with hooded eyes, his deep-set features not giving a single twitch, a single sign of empathy or regret. But that was good. Kings who had too much of it usually died young.

The king's soldiers swarmed the late Lord Song's estate and adjacent lands, overseeing that nobody ran from the bonfire of a pavilion before it lay reduced to soot and cinders and bones. An entire division guarded the place, the rest of Changkyun's Kingsguard amongst them. Armed. Faceless. Down in the valley where the heat must have been unbearable. Far away.

Changkyun had only taken Kihyun with him.

The steep cliff shot to the sky, structured into flute-like ribs towards the top. The mountain reminded Kihyun of huge, graphite organ pipes. It had been hard to climb up on horseback and he was sure it was going to be even harder to get back to the meadows below. Changkyun showed no signs of movement so far. He sat silent in his saddle as the Song dynasty died out before him.

Minutes could have gone by since Changkyun had given the order to start the fire, or hours.

It could take hours and hours more for the pavilion to scatter to the ground.

“It could take hours, Your Grace,” said Kihyun in an undertone, leaving the king the opportunity to disregard the hint.

The king didn't react at first. Then he reached for the reins.

“If it please you, Your Grace, I better lead the horses down. The descent could be dangerous even on foot.”

Still wordless, Changkyun spared him a nod. He followed the curt movement by swinging out of the saddle. He patted the horse's head, nuzzling it, his hand searching for the leather straps around the animal's neck. A part of him focused on the restless stallion and another, more acute part of him on the desolation below. He handed the reins to Kihyun without looking.

Kihyun took them. “Will you follow me, Your Grace?”

“I will watch for a little longer.”

Hesitating for a heartbeat, and promptly deciding to get on with the task quickly so he could come back to his king, Kihyun herded both horses down the winding, stony path. The cliff was wrought of columns of graphite. Crags and gaping cracks ran at each side of the path. The ground beneath his feet resembled stairs in places, while in other sections it flowed down like smooth ice. The warhorses were used to long travels and battleground terrain, but Kihyun nevertheless had to calm them down once or twice before crossing a particularly narrow corner.

He tied the horses to a zelkova tree at the foothills of the cliff and strode back up.

When he emerged from the shadow of the graphite giant, there was still no sun to blind him. Only smoke. He shielded his gaze as he walked ahead.

He spotted Changkyun standing by the very edge of the cliff.

The king was a man of nineteen, with shoulders broader than Kihyun's and features far more prominent. Masculine in every sense. Clad in armour and leather and carrying a longsword at his hip. And yet all Kihyun could see in front of him were Changkyun's skinny limbs, forever flailing in Kihyun's memory like a doll's, falling from the craggy reef at the harbour. Jumping from it on purpose.

“Changkyun,” he murmured, paling as the name dressed itself in the sound of his voice.

The king didn't turn. Kihyun could only hope that he hadn't heard. If the nape of his neck had stiffened, it was surely because another wing of the pavilion had collapsed before him with a thunder of dust and burning flakes.

“Your Grace,” called Kihyun.

Slowly peeling himself off the brink of the summit, Changkyun threw one last glance at the city of ash beneath and headed towards the Commander.

They descended down with confident but careful steps. Kihyun led the way, whirling around whenever the dizzy passageways turned even dizzier and offering an arm to the king. Changkyun seldom took it.

In the four weeks worth of travel, Changkyun had been... benign with him. He hadn't questioned or taunted Kihyun like he often would back in the palace when they were alone. He hadn't placed a single order that would overrule Kihyun's. In public, all Kihyun needed to do was ask, say, suggest, and Changkyun replied to him with a stoic silence that told him to do what he thought was best.

On those rare occasions when Kihyun had to meet the king in private, Changkyun hadn't been as generous. His silence became questions, his questions became japes. But the manner in which he challenged and out-argued Kihyun had a sugar-sweet edge to it that hadn't been there before. An edge that brought Kihyun back to the king's tent with his daily reports despite having a chance to tell him the news earlier during the day. It had him seeking for the short-lived privacy, the five-minute break between being the king's loyal guard and being just his loyal man.

Words that stung, or no words. Ridicule, or nothing.

It was an easy choice. Kihyun had been robbed of too much to ever choose nothing over something.

“This part of the road is very steep, Your Grace,” cautioned Kihyun at the bend that had previously unsettled the stallions.

“You crossed it with two horses in your care, I can cross it alone.”

As soon as Changkyun said it, his boot slid and he came crashing into Kihyun. They rolled down, Kihyun outstretching his arm to soften the fall. They halted at the brink of a ledge, breathing hard, clutching each other. Kihyun's head hung down from the ledge, filling with blood and with the king's grim laughter.

“I haven't seen you from this angle before, ser.”

Grunting, Kihyun willed himself to slither away from the void that opened behind him. With the king lying on top of him, it was somewhat of a challenge. Changkyun wasn't heavy – his armour was, and he didn't do anything to help.

When in safety, Kihyun lifted his head and pierced the king with a stern stare.

“Your Grace.”

“Lord Commander.”

“I wish you would listen for once.”

The king pulled back, staggered. He was dead in the eyes. But those eyes never left Kihyun.

“So do I.”

With that, Changkyun gathered himself up and let Kihyun to his devices. Kihyun lay rooted on the ledge until he remembered that he must protect his king and pave the way for him. He got up on uncertain legs and caught up with Changkyun, who'd walked off and at that point was passing a stony bridge.

What had he even meant? That he wished Kihyun would listen to his commands, no questions asked, or that he hoped to one day have enough trust in Kihyun to listen to him?

“Lead the way,” said Changkyun curtly, marching at the same speed, and Kihyun let his speculations go and quickened his pace.

The meadow smelled of pollen and sundust. A far cry from the smoky air at the mountaintop. The warhorses waited tied to the zelkova tree. Glancing back to make sure that Changkyun made it to the solid ground unscathed, Kihyun set off to unfasten the horses' reins.

He didn't get very far.

“Kihyun.”

He froze. It reached him as barely a whisper.

He made a slow turn.

Changkyun stood fairly away from him, breeze livening up his static silhouette and stirring his hair. Kihyun couldn't stop himself from seeing him small again, too young to rule without being ruined by his own decisions and self-imposed solitude. Without being crushed by the crown that he wore even while the world at large couldn't see.

Kihyun longed to turn back time then. Yearned to rewind it by nineteen years.

In a different world, they could have been friends.

A sense of loss that hadn't been there before flooded him.

No – no, that wasn't right. The loss had always been there, deep-seated, dormant. It wasn't new. It wasn't now. It wasn't about a realization arising out of thin air and constructing itself into words – it was about what had collapsed instead. The walls that Kihyun had built to separate him from his ruler were gone, and he, he cowered as he had nothing to shelter him.

Walls? He'd built cities. He'd built worlds.

And they'd gone up in smoke.

The king's gloved hand gripped the hilt of his sword. Kihyun knew just from a single glance what the high-strung gesture meant. The king was holding something back. Kihyun knew because he'd had to hold himself back the same way countless times before.

Kihyun understood it as suddenly as a summer storm comes – or the November one.

“You heard me. Up there,” he uttered, motioning upwards with his chin.

“I did,” confirmed Changkyun. Still no movement. “Calling your king by his given name. I could have you caned for that. I could dismiss you for insolence and send you home.”

The first threat had no effect on him, but his knees buckled at the other.

“Don't. Please, don't.”

“Are you afraid of pain, ser?”

“You know that's not it.” He blanched at his rashness. “You know that pain is not what frightens me, Your Grace.”

“But being sent home does?”

“Being away from you. Yes.” Not knowing what to do, he kneeled. “I'll take whatever penalty you see fit. I'll –”

He didn't get to finish his offer. Changkyun was in front of him and angling his head upwards.

“Don't beg,” he rasped. “It's unbecoming of the Commander of the Kingsguard.”

“I don't care,” murmured Kihyun. “I don't care. I'll beg if that's what it takes.”

“...What it takes?”

Kihyun jerked his head. “To make you see.”

“Make me see what?”

“That I'm yours.”

Pulpy clouds had covered the sky while they talked, smothering the last of the sun. It would be just as fruitless to wait for sunlight as it was to wait for Changkyun's response.

“I've always been yours,” continued Kihyun quietly. “Even when I had to leave, it was only so I could come back to you. So I could stay at your side.”

Changkyun forced Kihyun's chin up. Dragged his gloved fingers to the arch of his cheekbone. The leather was warm from the heat of Changkyun's hand, but it was colder than a human.

As abruptly as he'd touched him, Changkyun withdrew.

“That's hard to believe, ser. Because all you've ever done was leave. The part of you that I know the best is your back,” he snorted, not smiling at all, “because you. Always. Leave. When we were kids as well as when we were adults. You go the second your job is over. After your duty is done. After you've saved the life that I don't care to live.”

“Don't say that,” entreated Kihyun.

“It's true. It's the only truth I know.”

“Your Grace...”

“Am I wrong? Don't you always go? Aren't you always half a kingdom away even when you stand right next to me?”

“I don't have a choice in this. Never have. Back when I was a boy, I could only stay with you as your servant. Your shield.” His eyebrows knitted together. “We can't be what we used to be, but – this is still something. It has to be better than nothing.”

“But why? Why? Who told you to serve me?” spat the king. “Who do you think you are to decide this for both of us?”

“I didn't make the decision – I just heeded it. Like I should have. Because I serve the king.”

“You didn't serve me then. I didn't tell you to undergo the training. I didn't choose this for you.”

“No.” Kihyun wavered. “Our fathers did.”

The king took a moment to digest those words.

“Our fathers?” he asked in a brittle voice. He seemed to want to swallow the sound back because of how weak it was. How unkingly. His features hardened. “Then you should have refused them.”

“And what would be left of me today? I was born to do this.”

“Born to die for me,” hissed Changkyun.

“Born to live beside you,” countered Kihyun. “And leave this place protecting you, if need be.”

“Leave. Leave again,” shrilled the king. He tried to laugh, but made no sound. “Do you hear yourself, ser?”

“Your Grace –”

I don't want this. I don't want us to stay a used-to-be thing. I don't care for the best we've had to be in the past.” He cradled Kihyun's face in an rough grip. “I don't want to watch you die, Kihyun, and I don't want to watch you live this half-life that you've imposed on yourself either. I don't want to keep waking up and think about you first thing in the morning. Whether you've been killed while I slept or not. Whether you've gone away for good because of some obscure reason you had justified to yourself.”

Kihyun's eyes flitted shut and opened again. He tried to cherish the clammy contact and scent of leather. To remember it.

Changkyun was right that the best they'd ever had was fated to survive in their memories.

Gathering his wits to speak, Kihyun croaked out: “But there's no other way to be with you.”

“There are ways. You just don't want to tread them. You don't love your king well enough for that.”

“All I've ever done was love you,” replied Kihyun, and he shook, and he stormed on the inside, and he didn't know how much longer he could endure it.

Changkyun scoffed. So corpse-cold, as nobody but him could do it. “Like a subject loves his king. You can keep that kind of love.”

At last, an ancient anger came to clog him. Gripped the gentle bones in his throat and closed them up. Blocked out his name and title and all he'd been conditioned to be. Turned blood in his veins and sent it upstream. He ripped Changkyun's hand off of him and rose to his feet.

They were the same height, the king and him. When they faced one another, their features stared into each other perfectly aligned. Their eyes were on the same level. Their bodies too. Every curve. Every little detail. Like they'd once been meant to share the same mortal body, but a divine joke had split them into two.

The silence that stood between them was as complete as they should have been.

Until Kihyun broke it.

“You are wrong, Your Grace. And you have been wrong. Whenever you would doubt me. Whenever you would think that this is less than –”

“Don't finish that sentence, ser, unless you plan to act on it.”

“Act on what, Your Grace?”

“Love.”

Kihyun's momentary wrath wilted when it met with the disdain his voice dripped. The ever-used, felt-by-everyone word sounded so small when Changkyun uttered it – as though he'd decided in advance that it was empty, and the love itself deboned. Stripped of any realness. Because who could love him, when the whole kingdom either revered him for his crown, or shied away from him for it. Kihyun amongst them.

He inhaled through a wave of chest-gripping pain.

“I'll lose you if I act on it.”

“You forget that you speak to the king. I can bend the rules for you. I can break them, abolish them, set up new ones. Just say a word.”

Changkyun was looking him dead in the eye. The lines around his mouth and nose ran in harsh seams. Kihyun sank one level lower in love. One level deeper.

“It's not right,” he managed.

“It feels right.”

“Changkyun.”

A swish of a hand being raised silenced him. He expected a slap across the cheek.

Then – the king was kissing him. As if called by a cry that Kihyun didn't know he'd uttered. But Kihyun was calling, and calling, and he timidly tested the king's name on his tongue as he whispered it again. Changkyun's lips parted to take the whisper in. The tongue too. The inside of Changkyun's mouth scathed him.

“I can give you your lordship back. A seat in the council. I can –”

“Don't,” murmured Kihyun, mouth brushing against his mouth. “This is what I was made to do. I won't let anyone else take chances with your safety. I'm sworn to be your guard, and that's how I'll go on serving you.”

“Then be my guard during the day,” Changkyun groaned into the kiss, “and be just you at night. Nobody has to know.”

They were getting breathless. Kihyun had to stop kissing the king and be just kissed for a while.

Nobody had to know. But he would know. And Changkyun would know. Even without the threat of being defrocked and tainting his family name forever with such a shameful stain, there was still his conscience to consider. The dooming knowledge that they were doing something unlawful could come to sweep him one day. Smother him with guilt.

Did it have the power to contain him and make him say no? Make him unfeel?

One thing Kihyun realized on the spot. It couldn't outgrow how much he felt for the man in front on him. It couldn't keep him deaf to the pleas of a boy who wasn't even asking to be adored, but to be allowed to adore someone.

The threat of his own shame couldn't be worse than that of Changkyun's solitude.

Kihyun reached up to steady him, thumbs grazing his cheeks.

“A secret?” he asked in the smallest voice.

Changkyun keened and pressed against him. Steel scraped. There was no point in trying to save his breath anymore because Changkyun gave him sips of his in shallow sighs.

A secret.

He closed his eyes to everything.

 

Chapter Text

The summer palace teemed with a closed-off hum that only a vacant building circled by a victorious army camp could possess. To Kihyun it sounded as though he was walking within a hive that swarmed with insect on the outside instead of the other way around.

Inside its wood-and-paper walls, an echo of hushed voices curled around every corner like vines. Outside, the voices roared to the point of tearing the bearers' vocal cords. Untamed. Wet with wine. It was always like that after a victory, even if the victory hadn't been more than a slaughter.

Nothing could touch them now. The worst they had to fear was a wild boar running from the woods, or each other.

Kihyun marched on.

A graceful staircase. A cluster of corridors. Singing and clashing of steel rose and rang through the night while Kihyun escorted the king to his private chambers.

Unlike the remaining parts of the palace, the bedroom wasn't as shadowless. The servants had lit a row of lotus-shaped lanterns by the sleeping mat and, judging from the flicker from behind a sliding door which indicated more light in the adjacent room, prepared a bath.

The shadows only stilled when the men did.

The eerie unease which came with being alone, helplessly alone with his king, set Kihyun to motion. He locked the door and crossed the chamber to bolt two more hidden doors that he knew about. The building may have been cleared out on the king's orders, with only the members of the Kingsguard standing sentry at the entrances, but that didn't mean security. Security had to be secured.

He turned to see the king observe him a shred too attentively.

“Are there any more, Your Grace?” he asked, prompted by his gut feeling. With Changkyun there existed no just because.

“Why should I tell you?”

“So I can keep you safe.”

“You are so proud of your job and yet you can't do it properly. You need the king's help to protect the king.”

Kihyun took the verbal slap. And asked again. “Are there any other secret doors, Your Grace?”

“I should be allowed one escape route in case you decide to turn on me.”

Before the moment in the meadow, Kihyun would have taken that remark in and he would have agonized over why the king suspected him – him, above all – of treason. Half a day ago, Kihyun would have raged. He would have raged because he still didn't understand the king: how he could kiss someone he expected death from.

But after today, he couldn't unsee where Changkyun's distrust lay, and that he had been the root of it.

“Where's the door?” he asked gently.

Footsteps. From shadowless to shadowful, the darkness danced, and the branchy pattern on the paper walls danced with it. Changkyun passed by Kihyun and walked up to a wardrobe, the confused Commander trailing behind him. The cherry wood piece wasn't remarkably large. The carvings and delicate curves made it appear even smaller. Changkyun cracked the door open – and that was when Kihyun realized the wardrobe had a door. The piece was designed to look like a chest of drawers.

Frowning, Kihyun glanced into the wardrobe's belly. Glanced back at the king. Changkyun watched him do it. He laid his head against the laquered wood, the glaze of the lacquer and the glaze his eyes moving in the shifting light.

Kihyun stepped into the closet and instinctively pushed at the backboard. It gave way.

“Where does this lead to?” he demanded, both amplified and strangely smothered by the tight space around him.

“Where do you want it to lead?”

Kihyun slinked out. “Don't treat this as a joke. Please.”

“It leads to the kitchens. Unless you worry that a pantry mouse might climb up and assassinate me in my sleep, all you need to do is lock the thing from the outside,” said the king.

So he wasn't treating this as a joke after all – Kihyun was the joke.

His own smile took him by surprise. He turned the key, facing away from the king so as not to encourage his jests by the break in his self-control.

But he was lighter, inexplicably, tremulously. He'd gotten so used to Changkyun dismissing the matters of life and death, so dazed by his dazedness, that he'd forgotten what real humour was. He felt foolish for it, and the smile stayed where it was for a flit of time. He took care to wipe it off before he whirled back.

“Thank you for telling me, Your Grace.”

“Thank you for guarding me from rodents,” replied Changkyun and strode off, unbuckling his sword belt and removing his chainmail as he went. “Your five hours of rest begins now, lord Commander. Armour off.”

Kihyun followed him with his gaze. “I... I thought you wished me to stay.”

“I do.”

“Then...?”

“I suggest you make most of it and rest as long as you can, ser. I'm not tired yet, but I expect you to stand sentry later in the night while I sleep.”

“Your Grace, I need to freshen myself first – and clean my weapons.”

“Clean them while I bathe. You can use the bathroom after me.”

It was then that Kihyun noticed that Changkyun wore nothing but his undergarments. The crown was gone too, giving off a gloomy, hard-edged sparkle as it sat perched on a low-lying haejuban table.

The king's state couldn't fluster him because he'd spent years sharings dormitories and baths with dozens of boys and men in training, but as much as he tried, he couldn't look past the king's neck.

The bedroom fell into an eye-avoiding silence.

“Or you can bathe with me,” drawled Changkyun in that toneless fashion that could mean anything.

He must have known that Kihyun would say no because he stepped into the bathroom without him. His silhouette behind the sliding door undressed and sank into the water.

Kihyun wondered what was worse. Seeing the king bathe, or hearing him.

He noiselessly peeled off his armour and polished his weapons. He folded his things and put them away, paced, and in the end sat down to meditate by an altar table. His clothes were still on when Changkyun reappeared, a haze of hot mist rising off his body and bringing colour to his skin.

“You can go in.”

Kihyun didn't need to be told twice. He slipped inside. His lungs instantaneously sopped up the scent of soaps and oils and herbs floating in the water. The same scent he'd been able to ignore when he and the king had passed each other a moment ago. In the light of the lanterns, the steam condensing above the sunken tub had a goldish hue, like gold dust melting in milk.

Taking pains to walk as far away as possible from the door frame covered with translucent hanji paper, he stripped and submerged himself in the tiled bath. The ondol floors kept the water heated up. The whole room, really. His brow beaded.

He let his tired bones soak for a minute, then grabbed a bar of soap and started to scrub himself. The thing had flowers pressed in it and Kihyun was sure he was going to hear about how lovely he smelled once he joined his men tomorrow. Minhyuk in particular had the nose of a hound. He would never let Kihyun hear the end of it.

He could imagine Minhyuk's snigger. Maybe I sleep with the king's women, but you stink like them.

And soon Kihyun was dressed as one of them too. The servants had placed an extra bathrobe beside the towels. Kihyun put it on and shivered. He'd been brought up as a lord's son, but the king was used to fabrics that felt like silken touches on the skin.

When he walked out the stuffy bathroom, he spotted the king sitting by a soban. Bowls of meat and fresh and dried fruit alike all but buried the top of the dainty table. A teapot with two cups. A miniature chess board whose corner overlapped the corner of the soban and stuck slightly to the air. Changkyun had one knee propped up. He played the chess against himself to battle boredom.

Kihyun soundlessly slid down beside the king and kneeled with his hands balled at his sides, as was his habit.

The king continued with the game. He seemed to be set on ignoring Kihyun and, frankly, Kihyun was rather glad to be ignored. It had been an exhausting day.

The octagonal chess pieces were scattered over the board in uniform white, shifting from intersection to intersection, following the grate-like lines. Some of the pieces were stamped with red ink and some with blue. Words were carved into the white-painted wood: general, guard, elephant, soldier...

“Hungry?” asked Changkyun off-handedly.

Kihyun shook his head. He and the king had both eaten their share in the camp after they'd returned from the mountain.

“Go to sleep then.”

“I can't.” He grimaced at himself. “I don't think I can fall asleep yet, Your Grace,” he reiterated.

“Why? Thinking of the fire?”

“No.”

“When I can't sleep, it's usually because there's something on my mind.”

Kihyun didn't reply. The king shoved the chariot across the board. He proceeded to counter his own move as he switched to the other colour. Red. Blue. Red. Blue.

“Do you play janggi?”

“No,” said Kihyun. “I just know that the guard pieces stay close to the general.”

“You're not sleepy. You're not hungry. You can't play. You're not the greatest talker either when the topic strays from your job.”

“And yet I am here.”

“Again, don't be so honoured.” Bored, Changkyun flicked a piece forward. “Janggun,” he said, announcing a victory for the red general.

The game was over. Changkyun swept the pieces into an inlaid wooden box.

“I should make it mandatory for the members of the Kingsguard to learn the rules. It's tedious to play alone.”

“Then why do you do it?”

“I'm used to it. To winning and losing whatever I do. Without any real result.”

“It truly must be tedious.”

“One must make do with what he has. I've never had a friend to compete against.” Changkyun stored the box and the board and turned his back to the soban. “My only friend traded me for a sword and a shining badge. Oh, and for swimming in the sea with other boys.”

The tender tissue of Kihyun's memory parted like foam-tipped crests, washing out from black to grey to pearly, crystallizing to perfect clarity. The harbourfront, again. The tide, again, taking the boy before him under. The shock of thinking that, perhaps, he should have stood on the shore with the prince, and not in the water.

Over and over, the guilt rolled back to lap at him.

Over and over, he asked the boy in his memory to at least cry, cry out, so Kihyun could tell himself that Changkyun had plunged off the cliff on accident. That he'd fallen because of some freak error or fate, and not because being abandoned was worse for him than having his skull crushed by an underwater reef.

Kihyun clasped his knees. The lines in his palms dampened.

“I didn't mean to leave you.”

“But you did.”

“But I did,” repeated Kihyun, admitting to it. “Not for good, but without an explanation. I cannot take that back. I would if I could.”

He had severed his ties to the young prince so he could protect him one day. He'd done it because being Changkyun's sworn shield had been his only source of pride. His lifelong purpose. Even at the age of three, when Changkyun had just been born, Kihyun had been certain that this was why he'd come to this world.

Things he'd been so sure of dissolved in his mouth as he struggled to speak, to voice his reasons to the king. He suspected that no reason would be enough for him, and rightfully so.

By hoping to shield him, Kihyun had brought him harm.

“I cannot take it back,” continued Kihyun, “but I am sorry. And I always will be. For not seeing how you hurt.”

“Who said I hurt?”

“Don't you still?”

Changkyun was quiet. Inhaling, Kihyun sat straighter, wondering why kneeling there had turned so strenuous for him. But when it dawned on him why, it baffled him even worse. He ached inside that body unused to aching.

“All I wished was...” Kihyun trailed off.

He inhaled sharper.

Sat straighter.

“To be of use to you, and be beside you, and to stay if I would be let to stay. When I went to undertake the training, my only goal was to be permitted back into the palace once I proved myself as a valuable knight of the crown. I just wished –”

“You're shaking.”

“Your Grace?”

“You are shaking,” said Changkyun, clearer.

“That's absurd.”

“You're absurd. You're the one who's shaking.”

“I'm not shaking,” insisted Kihyun in a soft voice.

“Can't Commanders shake? Can't they get cold?” intoned Changkyun, one eyebrow arched. “Can't they cry?”

“I haven't cried since your coronation.”

“That makes two of us.”

Then Kihyun felt himself tremble. He distractedly looked down.

“I'm shaking,” he whispered, more to himself. His muscled spasmed. Had he been wielding a weapon, he would have dropped it because his hands jolted open.

“See. Absurd,” said Changkyun.

A cold caress went up Kihyun's wrist and halved his palm. Changkyun put his hand over Kihyun's, lining the heel of his palm with the ends of Kihyun's fingers and vice versa. They didn't overlap.

The death-like slither sent more shivers through him, but Kihyun caught Changkyun's hand into his and enclosed it. He rubbed his thumbs over Changkyun's knuckles. An onlooker could think that Changkyun was the one who needed to be reassured; but Kihyun would always turn to Changkyun to check on him when there was something wrong. He associated all anxiety with his fear for the king's safety, so even when it was him who split to pieces, he had to ensure that Changkyun was sound as a matter of priority.

“I beg your pardon, Your Grace,” Kihyun stammered out. “Give me a moment, I...”

“What are you begging for?”

“For your... patience. And understanding.”

“Because you're shaking? What am I supposed to understand about that? That you're human?”

Changkyun freed himself from Kihyun's grip, leaving his fingers to curl over nothing. But then his arms were around him and Kihyun choked out a sound as Changkyun wrapped up his whole body, grasping onto his back. Holding the nape of his neck and kissing it at the same time.

“I command you to behave as you,” he mouthed against Kihyun's neck, climbing fully into his lap. “Say what you need to say. Do what you need to do. It's just you and me.”

“But how can you stand me next to you?” said Kihyun with difficulty.

“Because you belong there, you fool. It should've been this way from the start. You were promised to me,” exploded Changkyun, pulling away to inspect him to the smallest detail. He took hold of Kihyun's face. “But even though it all went wrong, you're the one who I can rely on the most. When it comes to your duty, you're faultless. You've kept me alive for seven more years than I should have lived. You almost burned for me.”

“And you almost drowned for me.”

“Weren't those the good old times,” ironized Changkyun, so tonelessly that it was barely a question. It didn't require an answer anyway. “I would have done anything to be near you. And I knew why I was doing it. Even then. Even when we were so young that I shouldn't have understood. But you... I never understood you. Why you are so bent on dying for me when you won't look at me straight. Look at me.”

Kihyun looked up. His hands did that thing again, unfolding like flowers.

“You once said that it's devotion what binds you to me,” uttered Changkyun, “but that's not enough. That's not what I want. With anyone else, it would be more than I could ask for. With you it lessens everything you do and say.”

“Why, though? I have to be devoted to you,” countered Kihyun weakly. “You're the reason I was left alive. Not a lord, but lord Commander.”

A tiny, three-year-old Commander-to-be. Clutching a wooden knight to his side.

Changkyun went sallow. “I see. If that's all –”

“It's not all,” whispered Kihyun. He fisted his hands in the fabric of Changkyun's robe so tremors wouldn't overtake them. “And now it will never be all.”

“And you seem so very cheerful about that.”

“Your Grace, pardon my insolence –”

“Fuck that ‘Your Grace’ nonsense,” snarled Changkyun. “Be insolent. I told you to say all that you need to say.”

“As you wish,” said Kihyun. He gathered his words: those proverbial grains of gold that Changkyun would so often mock even as he praised them. “You reprimand me that I do not sound happy. But how can I? I can't very well celebrate that I am breaking your law and the oath I've taken upon myself of my own will. For a man who cannot even bring himself to trust me. Not even in this.”

“I trusted you once,” Changkyun shot back. He quieted for a minute, the momentary lapse taking the edge off his voice. “I guess I need to hear you say it again to believe it,” he murmured, laying his forehead over Kihyun's.

“Say what?” asked Kihyun with bated breath.

“That you're mine. Say it. You belong to me.” He leaned in, mouthing the plea alongside Kihyun's jawline word by word like paper-light kisses. Their lips stumbled. “Say it.”

“I belong to you,” echoed Kihyun as he tipped his head forward to meet Changkyun halfway. “I'm yours. I don't care if it ruins me.” As long as you're able to be the old you again.

“Nothing's going to ruin you.” Changkyun pressed in, letting their lips brush. “Nothing and nobody can touch you.”

He draped his arms around Kihyun's neck to solidify the promise, putting him under the protection of his power. Putting him in his power.

To stand above everything and anything, even the king and his law. To be exempt from the rules of men. It was wrong, and it felt worse than wrong, but the wrongness churned in his stomach like it could be right. An uprush of boldness prompted Kihyun to push their foreheads closer together.

“You can.” He started at Changkyun's mouth to peck it, halting just shy of doing it. He gazed up.

Changkyun gazed down. He grabbed the nape of Kihyun's neck and pulled him in, finishing what Kihyun had started. The scent of soap and dried up herbs came crashing over Kihyun, growing through him.

When they kissed, it tingled because Changkyun had eaten something spicy. Kihyun put his hand up and splayed it over the hollow of Changkyun's cheek, the other one clenching into the flesh between his shoulder blades.

Seizing one kiss after another as though conquering an unknown kingdom that he would rather lay to ashes than give up, Changkyun ground down. He pinned Kihyun under him. Warmth burst its banks and washed over him. The king rode him over the robes, gripping him everywhere, face-chest-sides, to convince himself that Kihyun existed and this was real. Kihyun couldn't blame him for that. He welcomed the rough handling – the physicality of it that persuaded them both that his was happening – and he paid the king with the same coin. Tentative, then tenfold.

(Because to him, it felt unreal too until he mapped Changkyun's nose and the bow-like curve above his mouth. Until he kissed the moles in the dip between his collarbones. Until one of them groaned.)

Kihyun slid a hand into the wide sleeve of Changkyun's robe and wound it up over the whole length of his arm, stopping at the shoulder and grasping it. Changkyun sighed into the kiss, harsh, the spice once more tangible on his lips. His skin prickled under Kihyun's fingers.

“All that fucking talking,” hissed Changkyun, “when we could have been doing this.”

“I thought I was here to rest,” he said, showing just how gullible he could be compared to Changkyun.

“Fool. You're truly the biggest fool, ser Yoo.” Tearing away, Changkyun lifted his chin and rubbed it over the old, faded burn scar on Kihyun's forehead. He blew his bangs away. Kissed the smooth spot underneath. “You should have been the court jester, not the Commander.”

“Why else would you have invited...” Kihyun trailed off.

As his confusion faded out, he squeezed Changkyun's bare shoulder. He wedged his thumb in the pliable cleft of his armpit, grazing the sensitive skin. The fabric of Changkyun's sleeve went taut.

Changkyun shuddered. He flexed his fingers in Kihyun's hair, raking through the strands, scraping the tender scalp. The pressure rather than the pain caused Kihyun to sigh out. He motioned with his head for Changkyun to do it again. Running his splayed fingers across Kihyun's temples and scalp, Changkyun kissed the curve of Kihyun's ear.

“I can't believe how long it took you,” he groaned, dragging his lips down to part them over Kihyun's earlobe. “You're so naïve.”

“You didn't give me clear orders,” siad Kihyun to defend himself against the charge that nevertheless fit him – after all, he'd killed more men than he'd kissed. Naïve was a polite way to put it.

Head buried in the crook of Kihyun's neck, Changkyun stilled his hips and breathing. He backed off far enough to peer straight at Kihyun. The honey-dark light of the lanterns shaded his laughter lines and his slanted eyes.

“What?” asked Kihyun in an undertone. He glanced at the king's features one by one to discover what went on in his head. Why he'd stopped.

“Are you acting on orders, ser?”

“What...?”

“Is this like that night when I told you to touch yourself?”

“In what sense?” asked Kihyun, imploring the darkness to obscure the blush that had began to spread over his throat and collarbones.

“In the sense that you must.”

“Your Grace,” he murmured, and when Changkyun fisted a hand in his hair for it, it oddly calmed him. “When have I truly carried out an order that I didn't condone?”

There was a hard-shelled clump of silence between them, shaped like an orbuculum and ready to burst open, swimming with all the unsaid things they'd kept in. Accusations. Confessions. But it spilled over with muffled moans instead as Changkyun gave up on language and reclaimed Kihyun's mouth. Their bodies went flush against one another, copying each other's curves to completeness.

The contact left them no room to hide. When Changkyun's arousal pressed against Kihyun's hip, Kihyun's cock brushed the underside of Changkyun's thigh.

Changkyun exhaled into the kiss. Their tongues tensed together before Changkyun broke off the contact, tugging at Kihyun to make him pull away too.

“Have you done it ever since? Have you come like that?”

“No,” said Kihyun truthfully.

“Why not?”

“Because you didn't allow it.”

“You're so...”

Puzzling, perhaps. So contrary to his own principles when they crossed paths with the king's wishes that he turned into a whole new man at times, but following them to a fault when Changkyun wasn't concerned. A walking oxymoron who cherished his and the king's honour and preached about right and wrong, yet who waited with his mouth parted to be kissed out and to be commanded to do the things he shouldn't be doing. Shouldn't – but wanted.

Not breaking the kiss, Changkyun untied his sash and slipped the bathrobe off his shoulders. Kihyun blindly traced his exposed arms, toned from sword fighting, but still too skinny for that stocky body. His thighs were hard from horse riding, and the least hint of softness stretched over his stomach because Changkyun had to sit on the throne day and night, slumping under the weight of his responsibilities and passed hours.

“You can say no, Kihyun. At any point,” said Changkyun, slurring the strangely timed statement as some of the syllables got lost between kisses. “I'm done pushing you. We stop when you say stop.”

With that, Changkyun sat back on his haunches, hovering above Kihyun's knees. He patted the inside of his robe that heaped at his elbows and hung down in shimmery folds, draped over his legs and pooling under him. He took a dark glass vial out of its inner pocket. He uncapped it, pouring a good half of it onto his fingers and rubbing them together to warm the substance up.

Regardless of the effort, Kihyun gave a half-pleased hiss as Changkyun pushed his clothes aside and spread the gelatinous liquid over the crown of his cock. He fingerteased a vein that waved alongside the underside of Kihyun's shaft. Fondled his base in a grip that bordered on too tight. Trailed his fingers back up to the sensitive head and circled it.

He went up on his knees, leaving Kihyun's legs light and numb, and he reached under his own bobbing dick and past his perineum with the same hand. He threw one arm around Kihyun's shoulders, burrowing his face into Kihyun's hair and nosing at the place where his strands parted. The sound he made was too hoarse to be called a whimper, but it was close, so close that Kihyun just clutched him, unsure who he was trying to steady. The king, or himself.

“Is this – safe?” stammered Kihyun.

“Is what safe?” Changkyun intoned after him. His fingers must have pushed past his hole by that point because he shuddered, the brief, sarcastic amusement dissipating from his tone. “Fucking men?”

“No, I meant – the thing you used – won't it harm you?” he queried, gripping the sides and backs of Changkyun's thighs to massage them. Skimming the creases under his ass. Not daring to go past.

“It won't, unless I buy a cask of it and drown in it,” chuckled Changkyun, his breath fanning hotly over Kihyun's bangs. Over the burn scar. “But if you require a full report, ser, it's made of aloe and agar-agar. Ancient emperors used it to lay with their soldier lovers when it wasn't considered a shame. It's even safe to eat,” he finished casually.

Eat.

The king likes his arse licked. Like a dog.

His cock felt tighter. He wedged his fingers into the creases under Changkyun's ass and lifted his cheeks up. Hefted them. Heavy and full. Slightly splayed because of the king's position.

Kissing the seam of Changkyun's chest to silence himself, Kihyun grabbed a handful of his ass and pulled his cheeks further apart. One curious fingertip stuttered over the slick, ribbed outside of Changkyun's rim, meeting Changkyun's buried fingers. Timing how fast they went in. How mean.

“You've done this before,” he said right as it dawned on him.

“Yes,” said Changkyun, the s simmering long and clear on his tongue. He pushed away from Kihyun only to back into his hands.

“With a man?”

“No.”

With himself, then. A nasal moan left his lips as he imagined Changkyun doing this on the same night that he'd ordered Kihyun to please himself. Each of them in their bed. Thinking of the other. Kihyun's hand feeling not tight enough, Changkyun's fingers not thick enough.

The jelly-like layer of wetness that coated his cock was sending chills through him the longer it stayed on his skin unattended, the cooling sensation of the substance giving him shivers even though it had warmed up to a body temperature. Still holding one of Changkyun's ass cheeks, he tentatively palmed himself with the other hand, testing how skin glided over skin. He could easily fuck into his fisted palm, over and over.

He held himself back from doing it because Changkyun clucked his tongue at him.

“Wait for me,” he instructed. “I'm almost there. I can almost take you.”

Kihyun gestured like when one was yielding in a fight, minutely outstretching his arms. He would wait forever even if he never got a token of affection in return.

With a sucked in breath, Changkyun pulled the fingers out and rested the heel of his palm on the curve of Kihyun's collarbone. He took care to poise his fingers so they wouldn't soil Kihyun, holding three of them up.

Three.

Kihyun stared, barely noticing that Changkyun lowered himself back into his lap because he couldn't stop studying the shiny, fleshy pads of his fingers. He leaned in and shyly pecked one.

Changkyun flinched, but had nowhere to go because Kihyun took him by the waist and wrist. He brought Changkyun's hand back, kissing his knuckles. They were coated too.

“Those were inside me,” pointed out Changkyun as if Kihyun didn't know.

As if it wasn't the very reason why he was kissing them.

They looked at each other. Kihyun planted one last peck into Changkyun's chubby palm and let him loose. His arms wound around the other man's waist and tensed up, strengthening the embrace.

Changkyun had already positioned himself above Kihyun, but as Kihyun tugged at him, the crown of his cock slid along Changkyun's cleft. It was so slick. He sensed the slight dip when his hard-on went past Changkyun's hole. Sensed the sucking feeling that caught the head of his cock for the shortest moment before Kihyun winced and missed it. His dick ran up between Changkyun's ass cheeks, pulling them apart with its girth.

“And here he is. My clumsy Commander,” taunted Changkyun, his voice coming from the deepest point of his throat. Low. Needy. He reached down and angled Kihyun against his pucker by the base. His hole moved as though it was breathing. “You really kept yourself pure. Didn't you? You're as untouched as they say.”

Capturing Changkyun's lips to rip that string of teasing comments apart, Kihyun strained against him, strained against him hard. As he brought Changkyun's face down into the kiss, he also brought down his body, and Changkyun sank on his cock with a strangled whimper. His thighs trembled once, then tightened around Kihyun.

The rest of his body tightened too.

His hands on Kihyun's shoulder.

His chest against Kihyun's chest.

The wet walls around his cock, contracting even as neither of them moved.

Kihyun pushed his nose against Changkyun's neck. Breathed in. Breathed out.

“What's the opposite of untouched?” he whispered as time stood still.

“Mine.”

Changkyun rocked his hips, not waiting for Kihyun to gather himself, to grasp onto something solid. His conscience. His reason. His thoughts sublimed, leaving him open to only to his senses.

Burying his face between Changkyun's collarbones and kissing the hollow there, Kihyun let out a throaty moan. It was so wet. It was so full. It was the answer to why Minhyuk risked his reputation for this.

Kihyun had always considered anything related to the body low and basic. Banal, even. The only time he even properly lived through his orgasm was when he had a hand around his neck and the other around his cock and the sound of Changkyun's voice and slithering robes was still freshly etched in his ears.

But there was nothing basic or banal about Changkyun thrusting himself onto his cock, nor about the way he looked at Kihyun. And low – low were only his groans. Gritty. Partly swallowed in.

Kihyun stared up at him with the kind of devotion that the king didn't care to see. He couldn't help it. Couldn't erase it and school his features into the same blankness that graced Changkyun's grimace. He'd gone too far, past the point of controlling himself – controlling anything about himself.

He was past caring.

Unbound.

Changkyun didn't have to guide his hands anymore. They grew bold and grabbed onto anything in their path. The king's hips. Thighs. They slid down to lift his ass from below and help him rise and fuck himself faster. He touched his untouchable king in all the places not even his women could enter. As his fingers grazed the sweaty spot between Changkyun's ass cheeks, he felt the thrum and throb of his own girth spreading Changkyun to fullness.

“Your Grace...”

“Are you really going to call that with your cock inside me?” sighed the king. He smiled, the corners of his lips curling like the lips of carved wooden masks – mad, blissed. He smiled with bliss.

Kihyun buckled his hips upwards and the king smiled wider. His head lolled and he looked at Kihyun with hooded eyes, the intention there as clear as the caress that crept up Kihyun's throat. Curiously. But firmly.

“You can still say no,” Changkyun reminded him, voiceless, and he squeezed the base of Kihyun's neck.

A noise. No struggle. Kihyun tilted his head back to give his king absolute freedom.

Changkyun ground down harder.

“Fuck,” he uttered. His hand slipped as his movement picked up a breathless tempo and he gripped Kihyun again. Gripped so it hurt. He put force against Kihyun's bones, crushing them.

The first wave of lethargy creeping in, Kihyun reached up. He stroked Changkyun's wrist. Enclosed his hand. He grimaced through the pain and softly tapped at Changkyun's fingers. His fingertips uncurled from where they'd been digging into Kihyun's neck, easing the strong hold they had on him. Once Changkyun wavered, Kihyun moved his hesitating hand ever so slightly, placing his fingers over his veins.

“Here,” he said hoarsely.

His arteries pulsed, already anticipating the painless high that came with having one's oxygen cut off.

Changkyun was speechless. He leaned in and renewed his hold on Kihyun, squeezing over the petite path of veins that ran in his neck. His hips slowed as he strained to hear that “no” which never came.

And once he realized it wouldn't and that Kihyun had essentially put his life into his hands, he whimpered. He hugged Kihyun with his other arm. Choked him until it was good.

“Do this to me the next time we fuck,” he demanded. He pushed at Kihyun's arteries. “Do it until I cry.”

Kihyun's mouth fell open. His eyelids grew heavy at the same time, copying the movement of his lips, only in reverse. A violent, blurry lightheadedness hazed up his vision. He tried to tell Changkyun that he was going to come, but couldn't because his vocal cords were gone and so was his ability to speak.

But they were one body now. Changkyun already knew.

Was already there.

He quickly let go of Kihyun's throat and seized his shoulders, listening to how Kihyun's rattling inhale blended into something sweeter.

They clung to each other, Changkyun spilling over him, Kihyun spilling inside him. His cum combined with the warmed up lube allowed his last few strokes to be smoother, rapid. He rammed himself in, in, until Changkyun whined and braced himself onto Kihyun's thigh, pushing at it to hinder his movements.

“Easy,” he husked.

Kihyun hauled him closer.

“I don't want to stop,” he pleaded, eyes shut and fingers sinking into the flesh on Changkyun's back. Just shy away from hurting.

“This is what happens when you neglect that you're a person like everybody else. You've kept yourself so starved, Kihyun.”

“I know. I know. I know, I know...”

A not-so-light touch carded through his hair.

“Do you want to fuck me again?”

“I'm going to do it again, Your Grace. I still have four hours to spare.”

Changkyun lapsed into a short silence. Glaring. Calculating. Somewhere between thrilled, and cagy because of how much he liked the thrills.

You be the king.

Hefting Changkyun by the hips, Kihyun slid out of him and gently placed him down. A mother-of-pearl folding screen hid their bodies from head to toe once they lay down, Changkyun on his back and Kihyun above him and savouring the sight. The young king changed like this – he looked less crude in the face. Uncertain, or close to it. Like it humiliated him a little, but he wanted to wait for the humiliation to become good.

Kihyun cupped him, one thumb tracing Changkyun's broad cheekbone. Changkyun did the same, only his hand surged upward instead of downward, going in a perfect parallel. He outlined the side of Kihyun's face with a soft stroke, then ran his hand down Kihyun's throat. He chased the fading bruises he'd left there. Two of his fingers had remained perfectly printed under Kihyun's jaw.

“Was that one of your killer tricks? The chokehold?” he asked, his hand imitating how it had locked Kihyun's throat, opening and shrinking into itself. It reminded Kihyun of how the once tiny prince would do this grabby gesture and stretch his skinny arms to steal his toys.

“Yes.”

“So you practically showed me how to dispose of you.”

Kihyun hummed, distracted as he tried to catch Changkyun by the wrist and kiss it.

Snorting, Changkyun let him do it, not commanding him to lay off even as Kihyun went on. He dragged his mouth to the crook of Changkyun's elbow and higher, higher to where he wasn't kissing the silk of his clothes anymore, but his skin. He drew the already askew hems of Changkyun's robe apart. Flicked away the loosened sash. Exposed all of him as the fabric spread out underneath him in crumples and creases, reminiscent of a black lake.

He draped his arm under Changkyun's thigh and hoisted it.

“Wait.”

“...Your Grace?”

“Don't call me that when we sleep together,” snapped Changkyun. He went up on his elbows and hurriedly undid Kihyun's sash, pulling the piece of fabric hand over hand. “Use this,” he said when he uncoiled the sash completely, thrusting it at Kihyun.

“For what?” he puzzled as he closed his fingers over it.

“Take a guess, ser.” Laying back down, Changkyun outstretched his arms behind his head. It seemed innocent, him making himself comfortable – only it wasn't. “Use your skills.”

It didn't took long to figure out.

The king was asking Kihyun to tie him up.

His tired cock stirred back to life, slow and thick. He hunched over Changkyun, his untied bathrobe billowing and hanging down, baring his chest and loins. Changkyun didn't touch him, but observed the shadows that wound around his torso.

Kihyun lifted Changkyun's crossed wrists to slip the sash under them, then placed them back down, doing a quick job of cuffing them. He used the sash as a rope, wrapping Changkyun's wrists in several wide stripes that climbed up a good part of his forearms.

He pulled back to inspect his work, testing the knot, fingering the sash to make sure that it was loose enough – but inescapable. When he was satisfied, he pulled Changkyun's sash from underneath him as well. He swiftly rolled it over his palm and lifted Changkyun's legs, bringing them up to his chest.

Changkyun gave a surprised yelp. He'd been tugging at the makeshift cuffs experimentally, his attention fully absorbed by the intricate knot. His eyes fell heavily on Kihyun. Bent in half, with his feet pointed up at the ceiling, Changkyun waited for what was next.

Using his weight as leverage to keep Changkyun's legs down, Kihyun clasped his ankles together and tightened the sash around them. He bound his ankles separately before he secured them to the bonds on Changkyun's hands, threading the sash through breaks between the fabric time after time, yanking the whole creation into a neat design.

He was fixed on the task, his handicraft showing he'd hogtied and suspended many men.

Changkyun's gaze never left him. But only when Kihyun nipped at the top of Changkyun's foot as to say that his work was done and sat back on his haunches, he noticed how haunted the gaze was.

He blanched.

“Oh,” he said weakly. “You meant. Just the arms.”

Nobody spoke. A burning hot hand plunged into Kihyun's stomach. He collected himself, though only on the outside, and he started forward to fumble with the silk that roped Changkyun's ankles together.

“No,” barked Changkyun hurriedly. The exertion of speaking had him oscillating in place, swaying imperceptibly from side to side. Like a helpless beetle. “Leave it.”

“But... it's not what you wanted.”

“It's what I want now.”

His rib cage could melt off, that was how bad his lungs burned. He carefully pulled Changkyun towards his groin, feeling how damp his back had grown. A breakout of droplets stuck to the small of his back, too fine to fall, clinging to the bottom of his spine. Kihyun leaned over and hovered narrowly above Changkyun's widening chest, their faces aligned.

“Are you comfortable?” he asked, touching the ties tentatively.

“Never better. It's time I do some exercise,” joked Changkyun, but it was strangely breathless. His hands and feet twitched when Kihyun's groin brushed against him. “All that sitting down is beginning to show. Thrones. Horses. You.”

Kihyun was too warm to flush. The too-fresh memory of Changkyun riding him flickered behind his briefly shut eyelids. He forced them open and looked into Changkyun's eyes, at his hooked nose, at his lips. He dove down. Changkyun released a deep mewl into the kiss, straining to put his arms around Kihyun's neck, then giving up with a flop.

Kihyun backed off bit by bit as he made his way down Changkyun's chest and over his smallish cock, knees shuffling on the floor as he got lower and lower. He laid his hip on the ground, then an elbow, and then he was positioned right at Changkyun's exposed hole. It trembled like the rest of him, in tune with his tensed up muscles.

A milky trickle of cum ran past his rim and down his cleft. Kihyun put two fingers to his reddened hole and spread them, spreading Changkyun as well as watching another opaque drop of cum ooze out.

He'd done this.

It was his.

The king was his.

“I can't believe you're seeing me like this,” uttered Changkyun, partly grumbling it, partly... sulking. He gave a tug at the bonds, his body threatening to tip over. Kihyun steadied him.

“I can't believe you're letting me see you,” he admitted quietly.

The wonder in his tone caused Changkyun to jerk again, because yes, he shouldn't be seen like this. By anyone. Shouldn't be bared like this. Shouldn't be –

Changkyun moaned, the sound coming from the depths of his chest. He turned his head to the side and tried to bury his mouth against his shoulder, but the position didn't allow it.

Right then, Kihyun ran his tongue over Changkyun's wet, soiled rim. Changkyun's hips jolted up to welcome his lips, welcome the tongue, and Kihyun didn't let himself be begged. He pressed in, the tip of his nose faintly tickling Changkyun's taut perineum, the tip of his tongue pushing past his loosened hole. It stretched around him; sucked him in; and Changkyun's stomach prolapsed as he tried to put his ass higher in the air.

Changkyun's tummy, his feet, the ring of muscles that Kihyun had breached with his mouth – all was twitchy, all in a constant state of crashing and reassembling. He shortly cried out as Kihyun sucked, tasting the king and himself, holding Changkyun down so he wouldn't collapse and roll over.

“You're getting better at kissing,” said Changkyun in a trembling voice as Kihyun licked into him.

Kihyun responded with a muffled moan, stealing the jest off the king's lips as it sent a thrum through his clenching walls. He only pulled back for air.

“I want to kiss you until you come,” he rasped, the grit of it surprising even him.

“No,” said Changkyun sharply, “not like this. Let me come on your cock.”

Things stilled. Kihyun peered up. Changkyun stared down at him.

Forehead frowning, Kihyun dipped back down, Changkyun's stretched hole taking in him without any resistance.

“I said I will come on your cock,” Changkyun forced out, stifling a moan and failing to swallow another one as Kihyun tongue-fucked him faster.

“And I said that I want to kiss you until you come,” he said sullenly.

He wasn't sure why he was so stubborn.

He just remembered the sickness-strong faintness in his core when he'd heard that Changkyun loved this.

The body beneath him writhed.

“That's an order, ser. I'm your king,” groaned Changkyun, struggling against his cuffs, but putting up a miserable fight.

“Nobody can tell who's who in the dark.”

“Kihyun, please.” He buckled. Whimpered. Tried to close his thighs. “I just need you inside me. Kihyun. Kihyun...”

He stopped. His mouth was millimetres away, aching to press back, but he resisted the pull. He softly leaned his forehead against the back of Changkyun's thigh as if to say sorry.

Withdrawing, he left lingering pecks wherever the king shivered the most. His inner thighs. His oversensitive cock. As he hoisted himself up to be above Changkyun, he trailed the sides of his thighs, kneading them in case they'd gone numb. Denting circles into the firm flesh with his thumbs.

“I will untie these, okay? Only the legs.”

“Okay,” said Changkyun, his chest rising and caving in.

His calves had begun to tremble, the shakes so violent that Kihyun held Changkyun's legs to his chest so he wouldn't hurt himself as he unfastened one of the knots. Changkyun's legs immediately fell apart. Kihyun eased them down after he inspected Changkyun's ankles for any swollen lines.

“Move your toes,” he instructed, and Changkyun did it with a grumble.

A little lighter, Kihyun wiped his mouth into the hem of his robe, smiling into the silk. His expression soon turned back to serious and a bit repentant as he placed himself on top of Changkyun. He grazed the boy's cheekbone, caressing his skin in a back-and-forth little arch that spanned to the end of his eyebrow. Changkyun let himself be petted for a serene little while. Then his half-lidded eyes cracked wider open.

“Biding your time, ser?”

“Oh, it's ser now?”

“Don't be insolent with me.”

“You told me to be.”

Putting his tied up wrist over his face, Changkyun chuckled. A weary, happy sound. “I did, didn't I?”

Kihyun led his hands away, using little to no force. He craned his neck to kiss the corner of Changkyun's mouth, taking care not to disgust him with the contact. But Changkyun didn't seem to mind. Didn't seem to flinch from his own taste. He curled himself towards Kihyun, deepening the kiss.

“Are you finally going to fuck me?” he goaded.

“As you wish, Your Grace.”

At that, Changkyun freed himself from Kihyun's loose embrace and, for some reason, he turned over. He braced himself on his elbows and knees, forearms planted firmly against the floor. He hung his head low.

“Go on.”

“Like this?”

“Just get on it with. Don't always make me beg you.”

His heartbeat was a voice in a vast, empty cathedral.

With one look at the bowed curve of Changkyun's back from where he lay beside him, Kihyun lifted himself up and kneeled behind the king. Changkyun's ass was splayed, but Kihyun used his thumbs to spread it wider. It asshole gaped open, dismally unfilled, not even Kihyun's seed keeping it warm and full. The king keened under him, fists balling tighter.

“I thought you liked begging,” whispered Kihyun. He picked up the dark glass vial and poured more lube over his hard-on, letting the leftover drip on Changkyun's hole.

Not wasting any more time, Kihyun fucked into him, the vial still in his hand that now gripped Changkyun's ass. The glass sank into the fleshy mound. It left behind a dip as deep as Kihyun's fingers made there.

“Fuck,” sobbed Changkyun. He arched into it, throwing more shadows into the two dimples at the small of his back. “Don't slow down.”

He didn't have to be told twice.

The whole time he'd been pleasing the king, his own cock wept for a touch.

For anything.

His thrusts grew more shallow, but harder. His hip bones slapped against Changkyun's ass.

Changkyun tightened around him, his insides shrinking and pulling him in. Kihyun threw his head back, the vial slipping from his fingers as he gave a small groan. He readjusted his grip, running his hands over Changkyun's shaking ass cheeks and to his hips. He used them as handles, bringing Changkyun in, locking him in place.

There,” gasped Changkyun. He whispered Kihyun's name like it was sacred.

Panting, Kihyun hunched over, wrapping his arms around Changkyun's middle. He pushed at Changkyun's belly, guiding him backwards, helping him to fuck himself onto Kihyun's cock. The light flickered, shuddering like Changkyun's moans.

His whines.

Kihyun kissed the arch of Changkyun's back. He knew that he was coming. Could feel it from his body. He let him come utouched and sobbing, a string of droplets running down his swaying dick and onto the crumpled robe spread out under him. Changkyun collapsed to he ground, hands clasped in prayer.

Seeing him so undone, hearing him so wrecked, Kihyun buried himself back with several sloppy thrusts and released his load into Changkyun soon after. It lasted longer than his previous orgasm, wreaking some sounds out of him that he would have wished to hold back, but couldn't. It was too powerful, too liberating, and the only one who could witness his fall was already a mewling mess at his feet.

A peaceful sort of relief trickled through his veins, drop by drop, then in a flood. He let his softened cock glide out and shifted backwards, eyes searching for the work he'd done on Changkyun's puffy hole.

Breathing out a whine of his own, Kihyun bent down and put his mouth over the little ringlet. It was hot on his tongue.

Changkyun thrashed under him.

“Just because it's edible, it doesn't mean you have to – oh,” he trailed off, writhing.

Kihyun smiled as he licked a long stripe across Changkyun's hole and then dipped in just to hear that choked cry again. He eased his tongue out, eyes crinkling and giving off an impish shine. He flipped Changkyun onto his back and gazed down at him. He mussed up the king's matted hair, sticking in sweaty strands to his forehead and temples.

The king was winded. He morosely put his knees up and clamped them together, calming the throb in his groin and lower still. He outstretched his arms to be untied.

Kihyun took his time. He loosened the sash knot by knot, unwrapping Changkyun's forearms first before he finally let him free, parting his dully reddened wrists. He rubbed some life into them, massaging the tender spots.

Changkyun was observing him out of the tail of his eye. He flexed his fingers, testing whether he had enough energy to do it. His fingertips trembled and he seemed torpid, afloat in the aftermath of all that bliss and hurt and blissful hurt.

“Lie behind me,” he commanded, rolling onto his side and curling into himself.

Kihyun's chest clenched. He obediently went down, pressing himself against Changkyun's back, knees drawn underneath his. A pleasant scent of sweat and soap filled his nose. A scent of warmth. He embraced Changkyun from behind, burrowing his face in the nape of his neck. His fingers idly played with the thin layer of squish on Changkyun's tummy.

Were anyone to walk in at that moment, both of them would have to pay the price. In a way, they were already paying. The short-lived peace that had filled Kihyun just moments before was beginning to thin out and wilt under the weight of reality. It was still too dark to see who was the king and who the servant, but tomorrow it would be all too clear, and their secret would quiver abandoned and alone in the sharpest daylight, vulnerable to a single prod.

It could bring them down. But for the time being, it brought them together.

To Kihyun, that was more than a promise of years and years wasted being safe but apart.

“You were... good,” said Changkyun out of nowhere, a shade of grudge colouring the statement.

Kihyun dismissed the sudden swell of pride. “I thought I was clumsy.”

“Oh. You were. But there is the bad kind of clumsy and then there is the endearing kind of clumsy.”

“Endearing kind of clumsy,” repeated Kihyun dubiously.

“Yes. Like when you see a fawn running on his breaking little legs.”

“A fawn,” Kihyun echoed again, this time darker as he picked up on Changkyun's mockery.

He wondered if that made Changkyun a hunter, or a wolf, or the forest brooklet towards which the fawn limped in order to drink. The idea was so embarrassing that he chuckled at himself and rubbed his chin on Changkyun's shoulder.

Changkyun yawned a little. He stirred in Kihyun's hug, turning onto his stomach and his other side. When they faced each other, Kihyun felt the same chest-gripping pang as before. He seemed so young, the curled up king, with the hint of wetness glazing the corners of his eyes from when he'd gotten teary as he'd spilled. He waited for Kihyun to pull him in, and Kihyun did.

“Yes, a fawn. A pretty fawn,” continued Changkyun, his deadpan making it difficult to tell whether he was serious or not. “You're so pretty.”

“Pretty,” said Kihyun, wondering when the king would get tired of him repeating every single word with the same dull incredulity.

Changkyun hummed. “So pretty. Like a prince. Everyone said so when we were kids. How pure you looked. How soft you were with animals. Like a proper princeling, while all I did was throw tantrums and scowl.”

“You laughed when you were with me.”

“See, and they still took me away from you.” Pausing, Changkyun weaved his way deeper into the membranes of his memory. A bitter snort left his lips. “They said that you should have been born while it snowed, and I should have silenced a storm.”

“What a bunch of nonsense,” said Kihyun. He caressed the king's back. “People say the silliest things, as if any of that matters. You are you and I am me. We've become what we are because it was chosen for us before we were even born, and not because of what people say. ”

“Maybe it really should have been like that, though. Maybe you should have been a prince too.”

Kihyun went silent.

“Or I should have been a soldier,” said Changkyun tiredly as he closed his eyes.

It was impossible not to imagine that ideal world in which they would be able to live as one. Kihyun let the image pass before his eyes, unfolding on a sheer fabric made of dreams and what ifs and lies. Perhaps there was such a world somewhere, and they'd been thrown out of it. What did it matter, though? The Changkyun and Kihyun who resided in that fragile, perfect realm could have been friends from birth to the very end, but they would never have what this Changkyun with this Kihyun had.

They would never have this.

Leaning in, Kihyun kissed one of Changkyun's fluttering eyelid, then the other.

“Everything is the way it's supposed to be.”

For a quickly fading second, Changkyun looked like he was going to counter it with a ‘no’ or a ‘not yet,’ but something silenced him. Because he knew that it could be. It would be. They would both take care of that.

“I don't think I can stay awake,” he said instead.

“Sleep. I'll get dressed and –”

“No.”

“And guard the door –”

“No.”

Sighing, Kihyun hugged him tighter.

“Alright. Sleep. I'll be here.”

“Won't you be tired tomorrow?” inquired Changkyun. He put his thigh forward and wedged it between Kihyun's legs. Close, closer.

“I won't.”

“I'll expect you to ride beside me the whole day.”

“I know.”

“But don't you need rest?” he queried, exhaustion and exasperating lacing the question equally.

Kihyun shrugged. He smelled Changkyun's hair, mumbling out a “I'll manage.”

That seemed to finally satisfy the king. He relaxed, bringing their bodies together until they fit into each other. Curve to curve. Breath to breath.

“I guess I will have to trust your judgement.”

Kihyun held him into the night, listening to the faint singing dying out across the camp until the lamps burned out.

 

In the morning, the sun broke through the smoke.