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death of a bachelor

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Unlike most things that usually go out with a bang, this story starts with one.

 

It wasn’t, believe it or not, intentional. It really wasn’t. How was Kunhang supposed to know that mixing Coke and mint drops actually led to an explosive reaction? He thought it was an urban legend — a rather old one at that.

 

So, there he is now, clothes drenched in fizzy brown liquid, a slightly damaged Coke bottle discarded in front of him and a very amused Wong Yukhei rolling on the floor laughing by his side.

 

Freeze frame. Yup, that’s Kunhang. You’re probably wondering how he got into this situation.

 

It’s actually quite simple. Kunhang, or rather, Prince Wong Kunhang of the North, is just a regular 19-year-old boy, apart from the fact that he more often than not has to wear a crown on his head. He’s not very fond of his princely duties most of the time — the weight of carrying a royal title ate away a good portion of his childhood, special lessons and tutoring to shape him into a future leader taking the place of soccer matches, video games and other things kids experience when growing up.

 

Because of that, Kunhang ends up doing all the dumb stuff he should’ve done as a teenager now, as a young adult. He’s usually joined by Wong Yukhei, his cousin, best friend and self-proclaimed partner in crime — and today is not different.

 

Right now, covered in soda, looking ridiculous and probably eternalized in a video Yukhei recorded on his phone, Kunhang can’t help but laugh. Moments like this bring him so much joy, even if they come in the form of failed experiences, like today. It’s nice to have a taste of what is like to be a regular boy, to have a break from all the politics lessons and the public relations meetings.

 

The sound of expensive shoes echoing in the hallway and approaching the two boys makes the prince’s laughter die down. A bitter taste settles inside his mouth as the newcomer clears their throat disapprovingly, and Kunhang is reminded that his father doesn’t agree with him.

 

Yukhei, bless him, greets the King with a smile. “Hi, uncle.” he says. Upon seeing the older man scowl, he quickly straightens his posture and assumes a neutral expression. “Sir. My King, Sir.”

 

The King doesn’t even bother to respond, only nods in his direction, turning to Kunhang afterwards. His scowl deepens and, if looks could kill, well. 

 

“I can explain, father.” the prince tries to lighten the situation. “You see-“

 

“No.” the King interrupts. “I don’t even want to know. Just get one of the servants to clean this mess and meet me in my office right after.”

 

“I’ll clean it myself, father. I’ll go see you as soon as I’m done.”

 

“Try not to take too long.” the older man turns to leave, and then pauses, turning to his nephew with a farewell nod. “Yukhei.”

 

“Sir.” the boy gets up to bow, but the King’s already turned his back and left. He sits back down, shoulders slumped.

 

“He has no right to treat you like that.” Kunhang mumbles, picking up the Coke bottle.

 

“He kind of does, Heng. He’s the King. He’s, you know, the superior authority here.”

 

“Yeah, but you didn’t do anything to him. I can understand him treating me the way he does, since I’m his disappointment of a son and all that, but you ? What have you done to upset him?”

 

“He probably thinks I’m the one corrupting you to the dark side of the force.” Yukhei shrugs, chuckling. “Also, I look a lot like my mom. And my mom reminds him of your mom. That probably makes him upset as well.”

 

“Well, he needs to get over it and start treating you like an actual human being.” Kunhang crosses his arms and frowns. “Mom left because she was fed up with him, so it’s literally his fault. Not mine, not yours.”

 

“Yeah, you’re kinda right about that.” his cousin agrees in a small voice. “Have you seen her lately?”

 

“No, not since a few months ago. Your mom probably told you she’s been traveling a lot.”

 

“Yeah. Being a diplomat must be tiring.” Yukhei turns to Kunhang. “You really miss her, don’t you?”

 

“More than anything.” the prince sighs, eyes cast downwards. “Anyways, I’m sorry you have to be a victim of my father’s nonchalance. You deserve better.”

 

“You deserve better too.”

 

“Yeah, but unlike you, I need to deal with it.” Kunhang gets up and wrings the hem of his t-shirt to get rid of any soda that might have stayed there. “I’m going to get stuff to clean this up.”

 

“Want help?”

 

“Nah. Go post that video on Instagram, I know you’re dying to do it.”

 

“You sure? Are you going to be okay?”

 

“Yeah, of course.” the prince smiles weakly.

 

Yukhei seems convinced, and he leaves the room after ruffling Kunhang’s hair like he’s been doing since they were kids.

 

All alone now, Kunhang lets out a long sigh. “I’ll be okay. At least, for now.”




The door to the King’s office is heavy as Kunhang opens it. He takes one step inside and bows to his father, who is sitting at his desk, and the older man responds with a brief nod, acknowledging his son’s presence. As the prince steps closer, he notices there’s another person in the room, standing closer to the left wall — so well-blended with the environment Kunhang barely noticed them.

 

Upon closer look, he recognizes the person as Xiao Dejun, the court musician. The prince doesn’t know much about Dejun, nor is he close to the other boy. All he knows is that they’re around the same age and that Dejun can play the guitar and has a heavenly voice. He also knows that the King took some sort of liking towards the musician — Kunhang’s late grandmother, the previous Queen, liked Dejun a lot, so his father decided to honor her and keep the boy under his protection.

 

The prince has no clue as to why the court musician is there, but smiles and waves to greet him anyway.

 

“Father.” Kunhang turns to the King. “You wanted to see me?”

 

“Yes, yes I did.” the older man sighs. “There’s something I’ve been meaning to talk to you for a while. Your little… Incident earlier today was the last straw for me, so we’re here now.”

 

“Sorry, father. Won’t happen again.”

 

“It certainly won’t, because I’m sending you away.”

 

Kunhang chokes out a gasp. “What?”

 

“It’s not as a punishment or anything of the sort.” the King explains. “I’m sending you on a… Let’s call it a mission. A courtship mission.”

 

“Courtship.” the prince repeats, incredulity strong in his voice. 

 

“Yes. You’ll be turning 20 years old soon, Kunhang. Most princes at your age are either enrolled in a courtship process, engaged or already married. I’ve been putting off the urge to find you a noble girl to court because you were showing a great performance in your princely activities — I assumed it was alright for you to focus on learning for now and delay the courtship a little more. But lately you’ve been slacking off, and that can’t be. This mission will, hopefully, get you back in your tracks.”

 

“So, 

what, are you going to ship me off to some other kingdom so I can live with a noble family and court their heir?” Kunhang crosses his arms.

 

“Not really.” the King opens a drawer and takes out a sheet of paper, laying it in front of him afterwards. He slides it over the tabletop so Kunhang can take it. “I made a list of places within this and our neighbouring kingdoms where you’ll be able to meet noble people around your age and get to know them. That’s your mission.”

 

“You do realize you’re sending me on a treasure hunt with real people as the prize, right?” the prince raises an eyebrow, still not believing the situation.

 

“Well, yes. Isn’t that what courtship is, anyway?”

 

“Exactly. It’s ridiculous.”

 

The King glares at his son and raises his voice. “It’s an essential part of our society’s system and you’ll follow it as such.”

 

“Still ridiculous.” Kunhang mumbles under his breath. He sees Dejun stifle a giggle, and pats himself on the back mentally.

 

“What was that?” his father asks.

 

“Nothing, father. Just thinking out loud. Nothing important.” 

 

“Good.” the older man looks between the two boys in the room. “Son, Dejun will accompany you in your ‘mission’. He’ll be your guide and your helper, and also my guarantee that you won’t do anything reckless.”

 

Oh. That makes sense. 

 

It also makes the whole situation a little better. Kunhang would rather not look for a person to court at all, let alone travel the kingdom for it, but Dejun seems like a nice guy. If everything else sucks, at least the prince will be in good company.

 

“I hope my guidance will be of help, Your Highness.” Dejun bows at Kunhang’s direction, and he feels uncomfortable. He hates people bowing at him — maybe he’s really not cut for royalty life, and all of his father’s efforts are useless.

 

“It sure will!” the prince assures with a smile. “You’ll be of great company during my journey. I’m positive.”

 

“I won’t disappoint.” the musician smiles back, albeit a little more timid.

 

“I guess that’s settled.” the King leans back into his chair and points to the list, still on top of his desk. “Kunhang, take the list, study it and, for everything that’s sacred, don’t lose it. Or ruin it.” he adds that last sentence with a pointed look. “You two are dismissed. You may use the rest of the day to talk and get more acquainted. You’ll be leaving in two days.”

 

Two days ?” Kunhang splutters. 

 

“Nothing more, nothing less.” his father states. “And my word is final. You two can leave now.”

 

“Yes, father.”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

Both Kunhang and Dejun speak in unison, and bow at the King at the same time. If the prince wasn’t so pissed off at his current situation, he would’ve found it funny.

 

The door to the King’s office remains as heavy as ever as Kunhang closes it behind him, and lets out the loud sigh he’s been holding back for the past few minutes.

 

“I’m so fucked.”




“So, you’re stuck with me at my dad’s orders.”

 

Kunhang takes a sip of his peach soda while he looks at Dejun, who still haven’t touched anything on his plate. After the King dismissed both boys and gave them the day off to get to know each other better, the prince had asked the other boy to come to his room to hang out, not before stopping by the kitchen and asking the cooks to make them a few things to snack on.

 

With Netflix working as background sound, both boys attempt a conversation - or rather, Kunhang tries to talk about random topics and Dejun always shies away from it. The musician's sandwich and sliced apples remain untouched on his tray as he refuses to maintain eye contact with the prince.

 

"Hey. Dejun." Kunhang calls. "You can talk to me, you know. We're supposed to be somewhat close. Don't be shy, dude. I know I'm a little… Well. I'm a bit of a handful, but I swear I'm not an asshole. At least, not on purpose."

 

"I know, Your Highness. I'd never assume such a thing." the other boy replies, polite as ever. "I just feel a little odd. It's a very unusual occurrence, for a prince to invite a servant into his room to talk, like friends would."

 

"Well, in those days we'll spend together you will come to know that I'm a very unusual prince." Kunhang chuckles. "For starters, would you be okay with not calling me Your Highness?"

 

The scandalized look on Dejun's face is almost comical. "No! The King would have my head! I cannot do that."

 

"He wouldn't have your head. If it was the old times, maybe, but he won't. He's not a fun dude, and he's very mean when he wants to be, but he's not a monster."

 

"Still, you're my prince. I need to address you respectfully. We may be a modern kingdom in the 21st century, but the hierarchy stays the same as it was in the old times."

 

"Well, if it helps, you can call me Prince Kunhang." the boy suggests. "It's still respectful. I'd really like if you used my name, if you could. I barely hear it nowadays, it's such a weird feeling. It's always Your Highness, my prince, or son. The only person who actually calls me Kunhang is my cousin."

 

"The loud, boisterous and funny boy who's sometimes with you?" Dejun asks.

 

"Oh, so you've noticed him!" the prince laughs. 

 

"Well, with all due respect to the young duke, it's quite hard not to." the musician's lips quirk upwards ever so slightly. "He's a very happy presence. It must be fun being around him."

 

"It is." Kunhang nods. “Hey, Dejun.”

 

“Yes, Your H- Sorry, Prince Kunhang?”

 

“Ooh, much better!” the prince gives the musician a thumbs up. “Thank you. I was going to ask, why aren’t you eating? Not hungry? You don’t like peanut butter and jam?”

 

“Oh, that’s not it.” Dejun shakes his head curtly. “I’m just… Again, a little confused about the situation. All of my life, I’ve been told I shouldn’t eat with the prince, or any member of the royal family for that matter.”

 

“Well, now you’re being told you can. Don’t worry about it, alright? You’re not breaking any rules.” Kunhang takes a bite of his own sandwich. “If someone asks, I gave you permission. As a friend I’d like to share a snack with.”

 

“A… Friend?” the other boy sounds uncertain.

 

“If you’d like.”

 

“Is this because of the trip? Because I agree. We should be on good terms before we spend so much time together.”

 

“It kind of is, but not really. You seem like a nice guy, Dejun. I genuinely want to have you as a friend, if you’d like.” the prince smiles.

 

Dejun’s mouth hangs open. “That’s- I- Isn’t this against the rules?”

 

“If it is, I must have skipped this part when reading the rule book.” Kunhang shrugs, but then backtracks. “In fact, I have skipped many parts of the rule book, so I take that back.” he clears his throat and restarts the phrase. “If it's against the rules, it shouldn’t be. Besides, my father himself said we should get acquainted. We have the King’s approval.”

 

“I don’t think he would be very happy with a full-on friendship.” the musician says, hesitant. “He’s very… Adamant about royal-servant relationships.”

 

“That would be nonsensical of him — he encouraged us to get acquainted, he can’t take it back.”

 

“He didn’t specify what level of acquaintanceship, though…”

 

“Exactly! So he can’t be pissed if we eventually become full-on friends. He didn’t say anything against friendship. We could become attached at the hip, and he wouldn’t have the means to condemn it — because he didn’t prohibit us from doing it.”

 

Dejun seems pensive for a moment, trying to follow the prince’s train of thought, eyebrows scrunched and eyes focused. His expression then softens, and he nods.

 

“I suppose you’re right, Prince Kunhang. I only hope it doesn’t get to the point of you needing to present that argument to the King, though. I wouldn’t like to see you two argue because of something I could’ve stopped.”

 

“We won’t argue.” Kunhang assures him. He knows it’s empty — he and his father always argue. “And, if we do, it won’t be your fault. It won’t be anyone’s fault, because friendship is not a bad thing, but if my father does get pissed, I’ll take the blame.” he looks at Dejun. “I doubt he will, though. He likes you. He’ll probably think you’re being a good influence for me.”

 

Dejun smiles. “Well, I hope to be one. Even though I don’t think you need it. From what I gathered, you’re a very smart and caring person. Those are prime qualities for a prince and future king.”

 

“Please, don’t bring up the ‘future king’ talk.” Kunhang raises both of his hands as if to shield himself. “It’s too early for me to have a career crisis.”

 

The musician lets out a quiet giggle at that, but quickly recomposes himself. “Sorry about that, prince.”

 

“About what?”

 

“Laughing at you. It was inappropriate.”

 

“Don’t be sorry, it was supposed to be a joke.” the prince smiles. “I’m glad I got a laugh out of you, actually. It’s a nice sight.”

 

A faint blush quickly takes over Dejun’s cheeks. “A nice sight?”

 

“Yeah, people should laugh more often. I like seeing people laugh. It usually means that they’re happy, and if there’s one thing we all need is more happiness. Even if it’s momentary, like a burst of laughter after a joke.”

 

“Well, Prince Kunhang, if you allow me to say, that is another precious trait for a prince to have. Caring for others’ happiness, and such.”

 

“Thank you, I’m glad you think that way.” Kunhang shoots him a sincere smile, that is reciprocated in a smaller, more kept version.

 

Silence washes over them. It’s not uncomfortable, but it’s quite heavy — some meaningful subjects were touched on their conversation, and their weight crowds over both boys like incense smoke, not unpleasant, but strong enough for them to know it’s there.

 

The prince breaks the spell by pointing at Dejun’s plate with joint pointer fingers. “You’re still not eating. Are you sure you don’t want a different meal?”

 

“Oh.” the musician blinks. “Oh, no, this one is completely fine. I just… Forgot. With our whole talk and stuff.” he picks up his PB&J sandwich and takes a bite, sipping from his glass of lemonade right after. Dejun’s manners are very refined and polite — as if he was the prince, not Kunhang. The latter supposes it’s because he’s been educated on how to behave around royalty, so his good manners apply to all aspects of his life, including his body language.

 

Kunhang also thinks Dejun looks like a prince. He’s never noticed them before, but the musician’s strong eyebrows and prominent cheekbones hold a certain regal feeling, as well as his sharp eyes and delicate fingers.

 

The prince doesn’t know how to feel about that, so he dismisses his brain’s remarks about the other’s looks and focuses on their present conversation.

 

“So, Dejun, would you say we’re on our road to friendship?” he asks.

 

“I’d say we’ll be on the road for your courtship in a couple of days, Prince Kunhang.” the musician quips, side-eyeing the other boy from behind his glass of lemonade.

 

“Quick-witted and with a knack for roasting!” Kunhang points a knowing finger at Dejun, pleased with his answer. “I like that a lot. Even though the mention of the courtship mission sends shivers down my spine and makes me want to become a hermit, your clapback was appreciated.”

 

“I’m sorry about that, then, Prince. It was an attempt on joking.”

 

“It was a successful joke. I said I liked it, despite the, uh circumstances.” the prince leans back on the stack of pillows on his bed. “And, answering my own question, I think that we are on our road to friendship. Again, if you’d like such an outcome.”

 

“I… I think I’d like it, yes.” Dejun allows himself a smile that, though small, is the biggest one he’s wore during the whole conversation, and Kunhang considers it a win.

 

“Then, it’s settled. Let’s be friends.”





Two days later, both boys, Yukhei and the King stand in front of the palace. Kunhang and Dejun have their packed bags resting by their feet, ready for their trip. The King needs to send them off and Yukhei is there for moral support — which, to be honest, is very much needed.

 

The King provides a van for their trip, to which Kunhang is grateful for. Dejun states he'll be driving, and the prince immediately says they'll take turns, because there's no way he's letting the musician drive for the whole trip without taking a break.

 

"I will take breaks, Your Highness." he reasons. "We'll stop by the houses of your possible suitors, so there will be plenty of time to rest. I'll be just fine."

 

"I still think we should take turns." Kunhang grumbles.

 

"You can discuss that later." the King interrupts. "Is everything ready to go? Aren't you forgetting anything?"

 

"No, father. Dejun and I have all that we need."

 

"Good. Put your luggage inside the van and then you're both free to leave." the man stares at Kunhang. "I trust you to come back with a nice, eligible person. Don't disappoint me." he gives a curt nod. "Bye, son. Return safely, both of you."

 

The King turns on his heels and walks back inside, leaving the other three boys alone.

 

“I think that’s the nicest he’s been in, like, months.” Kunhang deadpans.

 

Yukhei snorts. “That’s probably accurate.” he opens his arms, waiting for a hug. “Come here, loser. I don’t know when I’ll see you again.”

 

Kunhang goes for the hug, and laughs. “I’m not going to war, Xuxi. Hopefully it won’t take long.”

 

“Still. I’m going to miss you.” Yukhei hold his cousin’s shoulders, looking at him like a proud mom would. “I hope whoever puts a ring on it is nice, respectful, cute and smart.” he says, solemnly, and then adds. “And not a flat-earther. That’s important.”

 

The prince laughs, and he hears Dejun giggle from where he stands a few feet behind him. “If I’m being honest, I hope no one puts a ring on it. But, if it’s inevitable, I’ll make sure they fit those categories.”

 

“Good.” Yukhei ruffles his hair and pinches his cheeks. “Now, go. Good luck, Heng. Have a nice trip.” he looks at Dejun and smiles. “You too, Dejun. Stay safe.”

 

The musician bows his head and smiles. “Thank you, Your Grace.”

 

“‘Your Grace’ is my mother. You can call me Yukhei.”

 

“I… Really cannot.” Dejun smiles nervously. 

 

“He’s very clear on following the rules.” Kunhang supplies. “He does his best to stay respectful to everyone.”

 

“Well, yes.” the musician nods. “Thank you, prince Kunhang.”

 

“Aw, look at you two, already knowing things about each other.” Yukhei smiles brightly. “That’s so nice. Next time we hang out, you’re welcome to join, Dejun.”

 

“Thank you for the offer, Your Grace. It’ll be an honor.” Dejun finishes the sentence with another bow of his head.

 

“I’m holding you two back, aren’t I? Sorry.” Yukhei rubs the back of his neck. “Go. Have a safe trip and a safe return. Heng, don’t take too long answering my texts or I will assume you’re dead. You know how dramatic I can get.”

 

“Oh, I know.”

 

“Please keep in touch. Send selfies. Send memes. Send videos singing in the van. I’m going to miss your stupid face.” the last sentence is spoken through visibly teary-eyes, and Kunhang hugs his cousin again.

 

“Don’t worry, I’ll text you everyday.” the prince smiles.

 

“Good. Now bye, you two. Have fun.”

 

Kunhang gives Yukhei one more hug before entering the van with Dejun. The musician turns the ignition and the van whirrs to life. Kunhang waves at his cousin from the open window of the passenger seat and, soon, they’re on their way to their first destination.

 

The prince sighs. “Yeah, I won’t be having any fun.”

 

Dejun raises an eyebrow at that, turning to him when they stop at a red light. “Why’s that? If you don’t mind me asking, of course.”

 

“This whole… Courting thing. Not interested. You heard what I said to my father a couple of days ago, right? I find it ridiculous.”

 

“But why? Do you…” the musician averts his gaze, and tries to appear nonchalant while talking in a quiet voice. “Do you like someone already?”

 

“No.” Kunhang shrugs. “Not at all. I just think courting and dating and marriage should be oriented by an individual’s own will to find love or search for it. Not by their father’s order.”

 

The other boy hums. “I agree. And I’m sorry you’re being forced to go through this whole thing.”

 

“Don’t be. It’s not your fault.”

 

“I know, my prince. Still, I wish things could be different.”

 

“It’s alright. If anything, I’m in great company.” Kunhang flashes him a sincere smile.

 

He thinks he sees pink flush take over Dejun’s ears at the compliment, but he’s not sure. “It’s an honor to hear that, prince Kunhang. Thank you. You’re great company, too.”

 

The prince thanks him and they fall into silence. Noticing this, Dejun motions to the van’s instrument panel, where the radio is turned off.

 

“You can have the AUX cord, prince Kunhang. Put on some music, if you’d like.” he chuckles. “You listen to the songs I play all the time in the palace; you can choose your own now.”

 

Kunhang lets out a “oh, cool” and proceeds to connect his phone to the van’s system. He chooses a chill song that harmonizes with their roadtrip, humming along occasionally. His companion seems to find it a pleasant background noise as well, shoulders relaxed and head moving to the rhythm of the song.

 

They stay like that for a while, comfortably enjoying music together. Two songs later, when Dejun makes a turn to leave the highway they were previously on, Kunhang speaks up.

 

“Where was our first destination again?”

 

“The Qian’s.” Dejun supplies. “Duke, Duchess and their two sons. One is three years older than you, and the other is two years younger. The oldest just got a degree in Engineering, graduated top of his class, and is very well-versed in the arts too. I heard he plays the piano. I don’t know much about the youngest, though. His life is not so public, probably because he’s yet to turn 18.”

 

The prince’s mouth hangs open. “How do you know all that?”

 

“Well, I was supposed to do some research, my prince.” the musician explains. “The King asked me to.”

 

“Now I feel bad for not doing any research at all.” Kunhang says. “I only remember a few names off the list.”

 

“Don’t feel bad, my prince. It was more my duty than yours.”

 

“Maybe, but letting you do all the work is unfair.”

 

“It doesn’t bother me.” Dejun offers him a close-lipped smile, small, but sweet. “I appreciate and feel honored about your concern, prince Kunhang, but I really don’t mind following those orders. You can relax about my wellbeing, I’m perfectly fine.”

 

Kunhang grumbles under his breath, not satisfied with the situation, but understanding Dejun’s words. “Will you tell me if you feel overworked or uncomfortable?”

 

“Yes, of course, my prince. As long as you do the same.” the musician tilts his head to the side, eyes back on the road, but Kunhang can still see the ghost of a smile on his face. “Technically, one of my priorities here is to take care of you.”

 

Something about the way he says that last sentence makes an unfamiliar warmth settle on the prince’s chest. He dismisses it, deciding not to puzzle his mind over something that doesn’t seem that relevant. Instead, Kunhang pays attention to where they’re going - they seem to have arrived in a populated area, with narrower streets and lots of houses and apartment buildings lining them.

 

“Are we close to the Duke’s house?” he asks.

 

“I suppose so.” Dejun nods. “We’re on the correct path, I’m just not sure if they live in this neighbourhood or not.”

 

“We can stop and ask someone. The citizens must know where the Duke lives, right?”

 

“Oh, that’s a great idea. I’ll ask.”

 

Dejun slows down and stops the van right next to the sidewalk. He rolls down the window and sticks out his head, calling the attention of a pedestrian.

 

“Hello, good morning!” he greets, polite as ever. “Excuse me, but do you know where the Qian’s live? You know, the Duke and his family.”

 

The pedestrian, a man is his 40s, nods and gives them instructions. Turns out they’re quite close to the Qian mansion, only a few blocks away.

 

“You’ll know you’re approaching the mansion when you do.” the man says. “It’s impossible to miss, even from a distance.”

 

That statement, paired with the man’s bitter tone, makes confusion stir in Kunhang’s brain. The man doesn’t seem to be exaggerating, and he doesn’t seem very fond of the Duke either. Huh. Weird. Maybe he’s not popular with the citizens, for whatever reason. 

 

Dejun thanks the guy, and starts driving again mindlessly. Kunhang, on the other hand, can’t shake away the weird feeling caused by the distaste on the pedestrian’s words.




As soon as they approach the Qian residence, Kunhang senses something is very, very wrong.

 

The house is, in fact, big. Too big. The prince has seen mansions before, on his many trips to visit noble people from other kingdoms, but none of them compared to this one. The Duke’s mansion looks like it could rival a King’s palace if added two or three extra rooms.

 

“Wow.” Dejun marvels under his breath. “That… That’s a lot.”

 

Kunhang nods. “Yes, a lot. Maybe too much.”

 

“What do you mean, prince Kunhang?” the musician raises an eyebrow as he stops the van by the main gates, waiting for someone to let them in.

 

“Nothing, yet. It just looks suspicious. I’ve never seen a mansion this big.”

 

“We can’t assume things, my prince.”

 

“I know. For now, it’s just a weird feeling that I have.” Kunhang sighs, eyeing the two guards that open the heavy metal gates for them. “Let’s hope I’m wrong.”



Kunhang wishes he was wrong.

 

As soon as they enter the property, he sees a couple standing at the front door - the Duke and Duchess, probably. After getting out of the van, they walk in the couple’s direction, and Kunhang notices their faces are adorned by wide smiles. The smiles, however, look forced, almost strained, and a lot creepy. No one smiles like that in their daily life. Something is definitely off about the Qian’s.

 

The Duke and Duchess greet Kunhang, not sparing Dejun a glance as the prince introduces him. They motion for Kunhang to follow them inside, already bombarding him with questions about his stay. The fake smiles don’t falter for a second.

 

The couple leads them to the main room, where their two sons wait. The boys, thankfully, don’t have the same unsettling smiles as their parents, greeting both Kunhang and Dejun with polite bows. The Duchess tells the prince (still ignoring Dejun’s presence) to make himself comfortable, and he opts for sitting in one of the expensive-looking sofas, next to the two young men, and Dejun follows suit.

 

Kunhang expects the Duke and Duchess to go somewhere else, if not to give them privacy, to tend to whatever duties they may have. But they don’t. The couple stays in the room, at a not-comfortable-at-all distance, staring at the prince. He tries to ignore their presence and talk to the two brothers about harmless topics, just in case.

 

Something is blatantly off. Oh, how Kunhang wishes his suspicions were wrong.

 

He wishes he was wrong because the Duke’s sons are genuinely nice guys. Not courting material, as expected, but people he could easily see himself befriending. Kun, the oldest, is handsome in a regal way, nicely dressed, dark brown hair styled neatly, features sharp, but soft around the edges. He’s polite and quick-witted, the type of guy who could probably handle any subject in a conversation. Chenle, the youngest, resembles his brother in a way, but with a face that’s still touched by the hands of youth. He seems like a fun guy to be around, with his loud laugh and smart punchlines. 

 

The brothers also look a little uncomfortable at their parents’ actions. They seem to sense Kunhang’s uneasiness, as the prince constantly looks over to where the Duke and Duchess stand, like statues. He catches Kun’s gaze as the older man tries to give him a reassuring look, but it doesn’t work its magic.

 

Eventually, the couple leaves to see if lunch is ready. Kunhang almost breathes out a sigh of relief, and turns to the two brothers.

 

“Dude.” he very eloquently starts. “What’s going on?”

 

“They have a few screws missing.” Chenle shrugs.

 

“Chenle.” his brother reprimands. “It’s partially true, though. Mom and dad are a little… Too obsessed with money. Guess you can tell from the house.”

 

“Yeah, I can see.” the prince nods, then furrows his eyebrows. “But what’s with the creepy smiles and breathing down our necks while we talk?”

 

“I think they want to keep an eye on you. Not lose you for a second.” Kun ponders. “You see, the prospect of you marrying one of us only means a financial alliance for them, with higher social status as a bonus. As for the smiles… That’s their attempt at being friendly. They want to convince you that choosing our family is a nice deal.”

 

“It isn’t, by the way.” Chenle says. “As soon as you get the chance, run. Your life will become a nightmare.”

 

“Is it that bad?” Kunhang asks, tentatively.

 

“I don’t know what you consider ‘ that bad ’, but I can assure it’s not pleasant.” the oldest brother frowns. “They’re not really the parental type. Not fun.”

 

“Kun and I are leaving as soon as I turn 18. We found a nice house in a neighbouring town, and we’re only a few months away from escaping this madness.”

 

“Don’t call it madness, Chenle.”

 

“It is what it is.” the boy shrugs.

 

“Well, I hope the day comes soon.” Kunhang smiles at the brothers, genuinely rooting for them. “And I assume none of you are interested in the, uh, courting thingy.”

Chenle snorts. “No, thanks.”

 

“Yeah, me neither.” Kun smiles politely. “I… Have someone already.”

 

“Oh.” the prince says, surprised. “Congrats.”

 

He swears the other boy is blushing at the mention of his “someone”. It’s a heartwarming sight. “Thank you.”

 

Kunhang turns to Dejun, who still hasn’t spoken. He seems focused, looking around the room and taking in every aspect. “You okay, Dejun?” the prince asks.

 

“Yes, prince Kunhang. I’m fine.” he nods. “You?”

 

“A little uneasy by this whole situation.” Kunhang admits.

 

“We’re sorry about that.” Chenle frowns. “I meant it when I said you two should run. Mom and dad want you to stay for two days. So make up some excuse and leave as soon as possible.”

 

The prince shivers at the thought of being in the Duke and Duchess’ presences for two days. “We’ll stay for lunch, and then leave. That okay with you, Dejun?” he asks the musician.

 

“Yes, my prince, that’s okay. I want to leave, too.”

 

He has all the right to, Kunhang thinks, seeing the way the couple treated him. He pats Dejun’s shoulder, hoping it comes off as friendly and supportive. Then, he faces the Qian brothers again.

 

“I was thinking… Maybe we could keep in touch?” he suggests. “As friends.”

 

Chenle beams. “Of course! You don’t even have to ask.”

 

“Yes, we would like that very much.” Kun adds. “You’re a good guy, prince Kunhang. You too, Dejun.”

 

“Thank you, Your Grace.” Dejun smiles as he bows his head, thankful. “I can say the same about you and your brother.”

 

“We appreciate it.”

 

The four of them exchange contacts just before the Duke and Duchess come back to the main room, announcing lunch is ready. Now that Kunhang knows the meaning behind their never-faltering smiles, they don’t seem so sinister anymore, but they’re still deeply unsettling.

 

Lunch is, as the rest of their experience at the Qian mansion, uncomfortable. The Duke and Duchess don’t stop asking him questions, mostly material subjects and prodding about the courting of their sons. Kunhang dodges all of them, throwing some empty answers and excuses. They don’t address Dejun or acknowledge him — in fact, the prince is surprised Dejun even has a plate to eat lunch — and that makes him even more distasteful of the whole situation.

 

After lunch ends, Kunhang says he has urgent matters to take care of, therefore he needs to leave. The hosts try to make him stay longer, but the prince manages to get out of their metaphorical clutches. Both he and Dejun say their warm goodbyes to Kun and Chenle, promising to keep in touch, and pretty much run to where their van is parked on the property’s giant front yard.

 

The prince is scared the guards won’t open the gates for them, holding them captive at the Qian’s, but thankfully they’re let out as easily as they were let in. It’s only after they’re several feet away from the mansion that Kunhang lets out a sigh of relief.

 

“God, that was scary.”

 

“It sure was an experience.” Dejun agrees. “But the brothers were nice, at least.”

 

“Yes, I’m so happy they weren’t creeps. At least I got new friends out of it.”

 

The musician hums, and they stay silent for a moment before he speaks again. “It’s dirty money.”

 

“What?” Kunhang asks, confused.

 

“The Qian’s wealth.” Dejun clarifies. “The house, the property, the furniture. All built on dirty money.”

 

“Do you mean, like… Illegal stuff?”

 

“Exactly.”

 

“How are you so sure?”

 

The musician chuckles. “I just know. When you grow up in a poor neighbourhood, like I did, there’s always a person becoming rich all of a sudden every once in a while. And when I say rich, I mean, abnormally so. And, when that happens, there are only two plausible explanations: they won the lottery, or they got involved in illegal, yet rewarding business.” he gives a one-shouldered shrug. “And, well, when poor people win the lottery, they announce it to the whole block. I saw a couple of people suddenly gain giant amounts of money, and none of them said anything about it. They just packed their things and vanished. It’s what they do when they become rich with dirty money - leave without a trace. So, with time, I learned to identify what’s heritage, what’s hard work, and what’s dirty money.”

 

Kunhang blinks. He’s left speechless — mainly because that was a rather harsh subject for soft-spoken Xiao Dejun, but also because he didn’t expect the Qian’s to be involved with such things.

 

“Do you…” he starts. “Do you think Kun and Chenle know?”

 

“I don’t know, my prince. If they did, they certainly wouldn’t agree with it.” Dejun muses. “But, again, if they did, they probably wouldn’t have a say in anything. And, if they do, that’s just another reason for them to run away. I don’t think you need to worry about their integrity, though, prince; they wouldn’t condone it if they knew. They’re good people.”

 

“I know, I know. I trust their judgement.” Kunhang rests his cheek on his palm. “I just… Aw, man, that’s so messed up. If they know and can’t do anything about it.”

 

“It sure is.” the musician nods. “For their sake, I hope they don’t know. On the other hand, however, they’re smart. So they must be at least suspicious.”

 

“That’s awful. I feel sorry for them.”

 

“Me too.”

 

Suddenly, Kunhang yawns, loud and rich.

 

“Are you tired, my prince?” Dejun sneaks a concerned look at his direction before focusing back on the road.

 

“Mhmm, a little.”

 

“Do you want to go to the backseats and take a nap? They’re not a nice bed, but they seem comfortable enough. We did wake up pretty early, you should rest.”

 

“You don’t mind?” the prince asks.

 

“Of course not, prince Kunhang. I told you, I need to look out for you. And, if you feel like you need to rest, do it. Hopefully, our next host will be, uh, normal, and we will be able to stay the night.”

 

“Well, if it’s alright with you, I will take a quick nap, then.” Kunhang rubs his eyes. “Wake me up at our next stop?”

 

“Of course, prince Kunhang.” Dejun smiles softly.

 

With that, the prince hops over to the backseats of the van, earning a yelp from his companion. 

 

“Be careful!”

 

Kunhang laughs at his reaction. “I’m fine, Dejun. There’s nothing that can hurt me here.”

 

“You could hurt yourself by falling on your leg, or something.”

 

“But I didn’t.”

 

“Thankfully.”

 

“You worry too much, Dejun.” the other boy can’t see it, but the prince says that with a fond smile. 

 

“I’m aware, my prince. Like I said, worrying about your safety and wellbeing is part of my duty.”

 

“And I appreciate it. But you can relax for a bit, alright? I’ll be fine.”

 

“Alright.” Dejun caves in. “Oh, you can use my hoodie as a pillow if you want. It’s in my backpack, somewhere in those seats.”

 

Kunhang searches for said backpack, taking the hoodie out of it as soon as he finds it. It’s a big, soft and seemingly warm indigo blue hoodie, with a cat’s face graphic printed on the front. The prince giggles quietly at that, finding it endearing. He folds the item and places it on one of the seats’ cushions, laying his head on top of the blue fabric afterwards. It smells good, too, and a little devil on his shoulder makes him realize that’s probably how Dejun smells all the time. He shoves away that thought.

 

“It’s comfy.” he says. “Thank you, Dejun.”

 

“No problem.”

 

“I’m gonna try to sleep now, okay? Wake me up if you need anything, or if we arrive. Whichever comes first.”

Dejun chuckles. “I will. Sleep well, my prince.” 

 

It’s probably Kunhang’s sleepy brain, but there’s a special sweetness to the other’s voice and, again, his chest feels warm.

 

And, again, he ignores the feeling.

 

Breathing the hoodie’s comfortable scent, Kunhang is out like a light.





Their next destination is the Dong residence. Now, Kunhang kind of knows about them - Sir Dong Yi Xue is a retired knight from a neighbouring kingdom, and was made a member of nobility by his King. He and his family now live almost on the border between the kingdom he used to serve and Kunhang’s own. 

 

When the prince and Dejun arrive, the sun is about to set. The Dong family lives in a nice house, appropriate for a noble family but way more humble than the Qians’. The atmosphere is cozy, and the two boys are very well welcomed. Kunhang is so glad their current hosts aren’t creeps, on the contrary — Sir Dong and his wife are very nice, both to him and Dejun, which is a relief. They are each given a room to spend the night at, and the couple’s son, Sicheng, helps them carry their bags.

 

Sicheng is Kunhang’s possible suitor. He’s two years older than him, blonde — dyed — and pretty, quiet, attentive and, from what the prince has gathered so far, kind and creative. Again, someone who would make a good friend, but not a lifetime partner.

 

After the night comes and they all have a nice, comfortable dinner together, Kunhang retires to his room. Dejun checks on him to make sure he’s okay, and makes him promise to knock on his door if he needs anything. The prince makes a joke about pinky promising, earning a playful eye roll in response.

 

He’s lying on his bed, alternating between texting Yukhei and playing games on his phone, when someone knocks on his door. Assuming it’s Dejun, he tells them to come in.

 

It’s not Dejun.

 

In the doorway, Sicheng stands, holding a tray with a cup and what looks like a plate full of biscuits. He smiles tentatively. “Late night snacks?”

 

Kunhang panics for a second, wondering if this is already a move related to the courtship process. Still, it would be rude to refuse the older boy’s offer, so he tells him to come closer.

 

(Besides, who can say no to late night snacks?)

 

Sicheng approaches him and sets the tray on the bedside table. Up closer, the prince sees that the cup is filled with orange-ish liquid with a distinctive citric smell.

 

“Is that passion fruit juice?”

 

The other nods, smiling. “We’re very fond of it around here.”

 

“I love it.” Kunhang takes a sip - it’s sweet, but with a sour tinge, just the way he likes it. “Thanks for bringing this to me.”

 

“It’s no problem.” Sicheng bows his head lightly, then points to the foot of the bed. “Would you mind if I sat here? I… Kind of want to talk to you about something.”

 

Oh no. Oh no.

 

Well, Kunhang can’t really refuse, so he just waves his hand, hoping it’s enough of a sign that he doesn’t mind. The older nods and sits down, keeping a respectful distance.

 

“So.” he starts. “First of all I’d like to say that I have absolutely nothing against you. In fact, I think you’re really cool and a good guy.”

 

The prince is confused. Isn’t Sicheng supposed to be courting him? Starting the conversation like this makes no sense at all. “Okay...?”

 

“The thing is… I’m sorry, but I’m not one bit interested in courting and marrying you. Or anyone, for that matter.”

 

Oh , now it makes sense.

 

Kunhang lets out a breath he didn’t know he was holding, relieved. “Oh, thank God. You really scared me for a moment there.”

 

“Wait, you’re not offended?”

 

“No! I was actually thinking of a way to tell you and your parents I wasn’t really interested in courtship at the moment.”

 

“That’s convenient.” Sicheng laughs. 

 

“But, if you don’t mind me asking… Why aren’t you interested?” Kunhang asks, taking a bite of one of the biscuits from the tray. “I mean, at least strategically speaking, marrying a prince, even if it was for convenience, would do you some good, right?”

 

“Well, it would do my family some good. But, uh, can you keep a secret?”

 

The prince nods, turning to face the older boy fully, eyes attentive. “Yes, of course.”

 

“So. I’m a dancer. That’s not the secret, but you need to know that to understand.” Sicheng explains. “My parents don’t mind that I dance, but lately it’s been getting… Difficult.” he frowns. “I’ve won a few local tournaments for fun, and mom and dad are okay with it, but, uh, two weeks ago I received an invitation to compete countrywide. And I accepted it. Without them knowing.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“Exactly. They don’t want me to compete nationally because, like it or not, me focusing on my dancing career would be like giving my nobility duties a sedative - which means no marriage for the time being and, consequently, no heirs either.” he pauses. “They’re always talking about getting an heir, and I can see how much they want one. It breaks my heart, because I don’t really plan on having children at all. It’s not even because of dancing, it’s just… A me thing. Anyway, they don’t force me into doing anything, but I know they’re subtly doing all they can to make us marry. I don’t blame them — I know they mean well, but I can’t just give up on dancing.” Sicheng looks down. “It’s my dream.”

 

There’s a heavy feeling on Kunhang’s chest after that brief story. In front of him, there’s a young man whose only goal is to achieve his dream, and his heart is broken because his dream comes, at least for now, at the cost of his parents’ happiness over an heir. He reaches over to pat Sicheng’s shoulder friendly.

 

“I think it’s really brave of you to follow your dreams regardless of their outcomes in other aspects of your life.” he offers, sincerely. “But… An advice? Talk to your parents. Try to sugarcoat the heir thing. But they deserve to know about something so important as this competition.”

 

The older boy sighs heavily. “You’re right. I’ll talk to them after you leave.”

 

“Oh, and do tell me how the competition goes. I’m sure you’re going to win it.”

 

Sicheng chuckles, appreciating the prince’s words. “I will.”




The next morning, while Kunhang is walking to the kitchen to have breakfast, Dejun approaches him.

 

“Good morning, my prince.”

 

“Good morning, Dejun. Sleep well?”

 

“Yup.” the musician stretches his arms upwards, looking like a cat. “So, I heard our young host showed up in your room last night?”

 

Kunhang blushes at the implication. “I didn’t think you’d be this dirty minded.”

 

“I didn’t say anything.” Dejun giggles innocently.

 

“You thought of it.”

 

“I swear I didn’t. Not as far as you assumed I did, at least.” he stifles another laugh. “Sorry, prince Kunhang. That was a little inappropriate. I just assumed you talked about… Well, courting. Or something. Personal interests, maybe.”

 

“First of all, we didn’t talk about courting. Neither of us was interested. Cool, right?” Kunhang says. “Second of all, that wasn’t exactly inappropriate. Was I embarrassed? Yes. Did I need that mental image? No. But, c’mon, friends joke around with each other. I make fun of Yukhei all the time when he makes an idiot out of himself. You just made an almost-suggestive joke. It’s fine.”

 

“You’re still my prince.” Dejun points out. “Suggestive jokes are disrespectful, even if they’re mild like mine.”

 

“Do I look like I care?”

 

“Well… No.”

 

“Then, it’s settled. We’re aiming for friendship, remember? A little teasing is okay.”

 

With a defeated chuckle, Dejun lets the subject go as they walk inside the kitchen. Both boys greet their hosts and the meal is just as good as the dinner was the previous day. They spend the next hours mostly just hanging out with Sicheng - Kunhang does most of the talking since the other two boys are on the quieter side.

 

They decide to leave after lunch, and the prince settles with Sicheng’s parents that him courting the man’s son might not be the best option for either of the two boys. They’re not very pleased, it’s noticeable, but they don’t turn bitter or insist - despite not being fond of the situation, they respect it, and Kunhang appreciates that.

 

He also gets Sicheng’s number to keep in touch, like he did with the Qian brothers. Happy to have a new potential friend, he gets in the van with a smile when it’s time for them to leave.

 

“What did you two talk about last night, prince Kunhang?” Dejun asks, right after they get back on the road. “If it’s not indelicate of me to ask.”

 

“Nothing much, really. He told me he didn’t want to marry anyone at the moment. And told me why.” Kunhang leans back on the passenger seat. “But, uh, the reason why is a secret. It has to do with his dancer’s career.”

“Oh, so he dances! That’s nice.”

 

“He does, and I have this feeling he’s really good at it.” the prince smiles. “I hope the future is kind to him.”

 

Dejun nods in agreement, and the conversation dies. Kunhang scrolls through social media on his phone, humming to the songs that play through the AUX cord. He doesn’t want to bother his companion, so he tries to stay quiet, but the urge to talk to someone eventually wins, and he calls Dejun’s attention again.

 

“What’s our next stop?” he asks. “Sorry I keep asking. I know it’s annoying, and I probably shouldn’t be pestering you while you drive, but… I don’t know, I just wanted to talk.”

 

“It’s not annoying, my prince, don’t worry.” the musician tranquilizes him. “Our next stop is Baron Song’s house. You’re going to meet his only daughter, Yuqi.”

 

It’s the first girl on the list - not that Kunhang minds, he just doesn’t know what to expect. He hopes everything turns out okay, like it did with Sicheng.

 

He must have made a weird face, because Dejun turns to him and chuckles. “No need to make that face, prince Kunhang. I heard she’s nice.”

 

“Let’s see if she stays nice after I reject the courting proposition.” Kunhang quips. “Better yet, let’s see what her father says about it.”

 

“I mean, there’s not much he can say. After all, it is your decision to make. We’re, like you said, in the 21st century — courting may be somewhat mandatory, but arranged marriages are over. Everything that happens, happens only with the consent of the parties involved. Or, at least, it should.”

 

“Yeah, but.” the prince gestures vaguely with his hand. “There are people and people.”

 

“I know.” Dejun nods. “Let’s hope the Songs are the right kind of people, then.”

 

Kunhang looks out of the window and sighs. “Yeah, let’s hope.”




After Song Yuqi they visit Huang Renjun, and after Huang Renjun they visit Xu Minghao, and after Xu Minghao they visit Zhou Jieqiong, and so many others. All of the visits are fruitless, if we’re talking about the original motive behind them — but they are amazing for Kunhang, as he’s pretty much gained a new friend every time he left a noble’s house.

 

He’s never ran into a rough response to his lack of interest in courting or marriage. Some people — like Jieqiong and Minghao — were also not looking for that at the moment, so everything was fine. Some others were a little disappointed, yes, but, as the courting process doesn’t mean instant commitment, no hard feelings were left behind. Some parents glared at Kunhang after he said he wasn’t interested in their heirs, but nothing more.

 

The prince’s friendship with Dejun has also been flourishing at a much better pace. Now, the musician doesn’t panic much after saying something that etiquette books might consider inappropriate to say to a prince, only freezing in place for a moment before Kunhang waves his hand, signaling that he’s okay with it. His smiles are wider, and more frequent, and oh, what a pretty smile Dejun has. Kunhang likes making it blossom on the older’s face.

 

Right now, the boys are on their way to another kingdom, a smaller one right beside theirs. It’s still morning - they left their last stop right after breakfast - and they plan to arrive at the kingdom by lunchtime, stop somewhere in the city to grab something to eat, and then proceed to the next visiting destination.

 

This time, Kunhang is visiting another prince. He’s heard of this boy before, but doesn’t remember ever meeting him, at least not recently. From what he knows — a.k.a, Dejun’s researched information — Liu Yangyang is a bright, smart, talented boy with a very peculiar passion for racing cars. Some rumors say he’s an illegal street racer, competing with his fleet of expensive cars in the dead of the night just for the thrill. Kunhang, in all honesty, wouldn’t mind if it was true — despite being illegal, street racing isn’t a malicious infliction.

 

(Dejun wrinkles his nose as he’s telling the boy about the rumors, but Kunhang knows that he wouldn’t mind either. The musician might have the rule books memorized, but his morals stay guided by his judgement and his judgement only. And Dejun has a good judgement.)

 

Arriving at one of the main cities of the kingdom, the boys hear there’s a fair going on — food, drinks, souvenirs, all sorts of entertainment, everything happening for a whole week at Sunrise Square. Kunhang points that it’s perfect for them to take a little break from travelling so much and finally have lunch while they are at it. This time, Dejun doesn’t question the prince’s ideas and, in fact, agrees with him. They use the GPS for directions, parking the van two streets away from Sunrise Square and heading to the fair.

 

The fair is huge. Extense corridors lined with stalls and stands filled the place, sellers screaming about their products to whoever passed by. It looks chaotic, at first, but then, after stopping by one of the stalls and eating lunch, the boys arrive at a clear space, naturally arranged around a decorated marble fountain by the center of the Square. Children gather around, eating cotton candy, running and  playing with each other. There’s also, sitting on a bench, a girl around Kunhang’s age, with a stylish straw hat and an acoustic guitar resting on her lap. She plucks the strings absentmindedly, humming a melody to go with it, looking as peaceful as one can be.

 

It’s funny the way Kunhang practically senses Dejun’s response to the sound of the guitar. His shoulders jerk up, like he’s shivering, and his head whips to the direction where the sound is coming from. He stares at the girl for a moment, until she notices him and smiles at his direction.

 

“Good afternoon.” she greets. “Do you like music?”

 

Dejun nods, almost shyly. “I do. I’m a musician too.”

 

The girl chuckles, bright and airy. “Oh, I don’t know if I can consider myself a musician. I’m not really well-versed in it — I play what I like and what makes me happy. Not really interested in techniques and theory.”

 

"You don’t need to be versed in technique and theory to be a musician. You just need to like what you do, I’d say.” he smiles. “And you seem to like it a lot.”

 

“That I do.” she returns the smile, eyes crinkling. Then, she offers the guitar to Dejun, lifting it from her lap and pushing it forward a little. “Do you want to play?”

 

“Oh, no, no need to.” he refuses, shaking his hands. “It’s yours.”

 

“I know it’s mine, that’s why I’m letting you borrow it for a while.” the girl tilts her head. “So?”

 

With a quiet chuckle, Dejun gives in, sitting beside her and gently taking the guitar from her hands. He tests how it feels in his hands — the strings, the weight, the position — before turning to Kunhang.

 

“Any requests?”

 

The prince, who had only been watching their exchange until now, startles, and then shakes his head. “Nothing in particular. Just play what you like.”

 

“Okay, then.” the musician smiles. 

 

He starts playing, still a little tentatively. His hands are delicate, and his eyes are soft, and you can see how precious music is to him. Kunhang has seen Dejun perform before, of course, he’s familiar with his music numbers on the palace, but he’s never paid such close attention to the act itself.

 

It’s, if he’s being honest, enthralling. The older boy creates a beautiful melody by plucking the strings, each note only making the prince’s eyes focus on him even more. Then, Dejun starts singing, and it’s a whole new world - his voice is sweet, soothing and rich, and he sings like there’s no one else around him, like his only company is the music. Watching the boy play on social events at home has never felt like this; it was nice, and fun, but it wasn’t out of the ordinary — just the court’s musician doing his job incredibly well. Right now, even though they’re at a public place with a few sets of eyes on them, watching Dejun on his element feels almost intimate. Like he’s trusting Kunhang with a special side of him, one that he doesn’t let show when he’s playing as a job — one that’s reserved only for when he’s playing as himself.

 

The prince doesn’t know what to feel. He knows this is important, and he feels honored, but at the same time he feels a tug on his heart that he can’t understand, doesn’t know where it comes from. Still, he doesn’t tear his gaze away from the other boy, not even when the song ends and Kunhang starts clapping. The feeling in his chest is still there as he cheers and tells Dejun to play another song.

 

Slowly, the kids that were playing in the area before all gather around the musician, sitting on the floor in a semi-circle in front of him. They all pay attention to him — probably also amazed by the way he sings — and some even sway side to side, moving their little heads to the rhythm. It’s very endearing, and Dejun seems to think so too, if the way he smiles wide at the kids’ enthusiastic cheers is anything to go by.

 

God, that smile could rival the sun.

 

Kunhang doesn’t know where this thought came from. But he agrees.

 

A couple of songs later, Dejun returns the girl’s guitar, thanking her and bowing to his impromptu audience — that had increased in size while he played. He’s blushing a little as they walk away from the fair and back to the van, pink dusing the tips of his ears and the apple of his cheeks.

 

“You did pretty good out there.” the prince says, putting on his seatbelt.

 

“It was nothing.” Dejun brushes it off with a shake of the head.

 

“If that was ‘nothing’, I can’t imagine what’s it like when you’re playing for real.”

 

“Of course you can imagine what it’s like, I’m the official musician of your father’s court. I play guitar and sing at the palace you live at all the time.” he chuckles nervously. 

 

“Nah, that was different.” Kunhang argues. “It seemed more, I don’t know, genuine when you were playing just for fun back there.”

 

“Well, I was in fact more relaxed. But I don’t see how that makes the situation any different…?”

 

“I can’t explain it either. Your aura was different.”

 

“My aura.” the musician deadpans.

 

Yes , your aura, stop making fun of my choice of words.” the prince pokes his ribs, earning a yelp in response.

 

“Ouch! I’m driving, stop it.” Dejun swats at him. “So, prince Kunhang, what’s my aura like?”

 

“Annoying.” Kunhang quips. “But, seriously, I don’t know why, but that was different from the other times I saw you play and sing. It was… Special. And I liked it. A lot of people did.”

 

The blush comes back to the musician’s cheeks full force at the compliment, and he bashfully ducks his head for a millisecond before looking back to the road. “Well, if you say so… Tell me when you find out what made that impromptu gig different from the others.”

 

“I will.” the prince nods. “Are we near Yangyang’s house?”

 

“Kinda. There’s still 20 minutes until we get there. Why? Impatient already?”

 

“I just wanna get this over with. Shouldn’t that list be over for now?”

 

“I believe there are only a few names left, my prince. We’ll be done sooner than you expect.”

 

“I expected to be done five names ago.” Kunhang complains, mindlessly tracing lines on the closed window by his side. “This is pointless. I mean, it’s good that I’m making friends, but still arriving at their houses with the courting proposition is pointless. I know I won’t engage on it, so why?”

 

“Do you really not find any of the potential suitors interesting, my prince?”

 

“I guess, hypothetically? All of them were interesting , in the general sense of the word, but not really romantically interesting.” he sighs. “Maybe I’m not fit to be royalty, after all. If I can’t follow an important rule such as courting.”

 

“Don;t say that, prince Kunhang. I’ve said it before, you have many good qualities you don’t often see in kings, queens and rulers. You’re not ‘less’ fit to be royalty just because of that.” Dejun smiles in his direction. “You’re special, in your own way.”

 

“It’s really nice of you to say that.” Kunhang returns the smile. “Thank you.”

 

“No need to thank me. It’s what friends do, right? Comfort each other and such?”

 

The prince melts a little at that. Hearing so openly that Dejun considers them friends, and with such a sweet remark, makes him incredibly happy. He controls the urge to smother his companion in a hug, as it’s not viable at the moment, settling with only looking fondly at the musician.

 

“Yeah, it’s what friends do.”





Liu Yangyang is exactly the bright boy he’s rumored to be. He’s the one who welcomes Kunhang and Dejun at the front door, helping them with the bags and already initiating small talk — asking if they’re hungry, tired from the trip, how did the road treat them, if they want water, hot choco, there are so many questions the boys get lost.

 

They meet Yangyang’s parents, the King and Queen, who greet them very politely and show them their rooms. All in all, it seems like it will be an enjoyable stay.

 

Kunhang, Dejun and Yangyang spend the rest of the day hanging out at the palace — Yangyang has a home theater room, and they watch movies for hours, lazing away at the soft bean bags scattered on the carpeted floor. When it’s time for dinner, both hosts and guests gather at a very welcoming dining room and exchange pleasant conversations.

 

The three boys spend a few more hours together, this time at the palace’s exclusive library. It’s a very cozy environment, with a heater that mimics a fireplace, doing a good job at keeping them warm even without actual fire. They have all changed into more comfortable clothes after dinner, and Dejun is wearing a knit mustard sweater that’s a little too big on him, the sleeves going past his wrists, making him look particularly soft. Dejun is naturally pretty, but, like this, he’s endearing in a different way — almost like a fluffy cat. It’s cute.

 

Again, Kunhang has no idea why his mind is going down that lane.

 

They eventually all go to sleep, and the next day is spent in a similar fashion as the first. Yangyang takes them to a new room in the palace every time — the pool, the gardens, the game room. Both Dejun and Kunhang enjoy the young prince’s company a lot, so they don’t bother shortening their stay, as the King and Queen have vehemently stated they could stay as long as they pleased. 

 

It’s on those moments the three boys spend together that Kunhang realizes that Yangyang isn’t that interested in engaging in courtship — well, at least, not with him. He doesn’t miss the lingering stares the younger boy throws at Dejun, his eyes pretty much becoming heart-shaped with every passing second. 

 

Now that he has that knowledge, Kunhang can’t help but feel some weird, green feeling settle in his chest. He doesn’t know what that feeling is, he can’t put a name on it, but he knows he shouldn’t be feeling it. After all, Dejun isn’t his friend exclusively — he’s an individual and, as any individual, should interact with a group of people that doesn’t consist of one person only.  Kunhang knows this, and he encourages it, always telling Dejun to also exchange contacts with the friends they made along the road.

 

So, why is he feeling like this only now? And how can he stop it?

 

Clueless about his own feelings, Kunhang settles for ignoring them, like he has been doing with the squeeze of his heart every time he sees Dejun smile. Every time he catches Yangyang’s moony eyes at the musician, he forces himself not to mind it, even with the little devil on his shoulder egging him to do so. He pretends he doesn’t feel the annoyance bubbling inside him, knowing it’s not nice to feel it, whatever it is.

 

The prince carries on with the appearances — despite that minor occurrence, he still likes Yangyang’s friendship, and still has a good time hanging out with him. The younger boy doesn’t seem to notice his inner turmoil, so Kunhang figures it’s all good. 

 

One day, when they are lounging by the pool at night, Dejun fast asleep in one of the reclined chairs, Kunhang sitting on the edge with his legs inside the warm water while Yangyang tries to see how long can he stay underwater without breaking the surface for air, the older prince decides to ask the younger boy about something. He waits for Yangyang to emerge from the pool to call his attention, splashing him with his foot.

 

The boy turns to Kunhang, inquiring. “What?”

 

“C’mere for a sec. Wanna ask you something.”

 

“Sure.” Yangyang dives down from where he is and emerges closer to the other, propelling himself up to also sit on the edge of the pool, by his side. “What’s up?”

 

“Okay, I need to ask this. I’m sorry if this offends you in any way, but I’ve heard rumours…” Kunhang trails off, trying to find a nicer way to ask. “Fine, there’s no way I can sugarcoat this. Do you really take part in illegal car races?”

 

There’s a beat of silence, and Yangyang bursts into a fit of giggles. “Dude, you made such a fuss over that ?”

 

“Yeah…?” the older prince says, hesitant. “Wait, why are you laughing?”

 

“Because it’s not a big deal.” Yangyang shrugs, smile still on his face. “I do. I don’t exactly keep it a secret. I just don’t confirm or deny any rumors; but if you saw me there, you saw me there. I don’t see a reason to hide it.”

 

“They’re literally illegal, shouldn’t that be a reason?”

 

The younger prince grins mischievously. “Nope.” he sticks his tongue out playfully. “No, but seriously, I don’t know who made them illegal in the first place. They never happen on populated areas, you have to be an adult to participate, no one has ever gotten hurt, at least that I heard of… They’re only illegal because it says somewhere they should be. Essentially, nothing bad happens. We just drive really fast.”

 

Kunhang snorts at that last sentence. “If you say so. Wait, what about your parents?”

 

“They don’t know I race, but they don’t care about the races either. Honestly, I’m not sure they know about the races.” Yangyang shrugs. “If they ask, I’ll tell them. But they won’t. And, if and when I become king, I’ll legitimate the races and they’ll have a nice, exclusive racetrack to take place at.” 

 

“It’s a nice plan.” Kunhang says. “You really are passionate about racing, huh.”

“Dude, I love it. I can’t really explain it, I just feel so… Alive doing it. It’s amazing, honestly.” the younger prince beams. “Remind me to take you to a race one day. You’ll see what I’m talking about.”

 

Kunhang really regrets what he says next, but it’s out before he knows it:

 

“Wouldn’t you rather take Dejun instead?”

 

Yangyang blushes, going wide-eyed at the question. He rubs the back of his neck awkwardly. “Ah, so you really noticed…”

 

“It was kind of hard not to. Sorry, dude, but you were being quite obvious. But it’s, uh, cool that you like him. No problem with it.”

 

“I don’t like him, it’s just… A silly crush, I guess.” the young prince laughs nervously. “You don’t have to, you know, be jealous about it.”

 

“I’m not jealous!” Kunhang almost screams, forgetting that the subject of their conversation is currently asleep not far from them. “Why would I be jealous?”

 

“Oh my, you really don’t get it, do you?” Yangyang looks like a mix of incredulity and amusement. 

 

The older prince furrows his brows. What does he mean by that? What does the other boy know that he doesn’t?

 

“What do I not get?” he asks, puzzled.

 

“Nevermind.” Yangyang snorts, waving his hand dismissively. “You’ll realize sooner or later.”

 

“That’s very ominous.”

 

“It shouldn’t be. It’s really obvious, quite literally on your face. How come you still didn’t notice it?”

 

“I really have no idea what you’re talking about.” Kunhang states, face blank.

 

“It’s okay, let’s just… Forget it.” the other boy snorts, and they drop the subject. “That invitation to come with me to a race still stands, you know.”

 

With a smile, the older nods. “I’ll think about it.”




King and Queen Liu are, thankfully, not pressed about the lack of courtship between the two princes. The Queen, in fact, pats their heads and says they function better as friends, and they agree. A couple of days after their chat at the pool, Kunhang tells Yangyang it’s probably about time they leave — it’s been almost a week since he and Dejun arrived, and they don’t want to take advantage of the Liu’s hospitality, as nice as they are. The younger prince says it’s fine, but asks to exchange numbers with both guests and makes them  promise to come back to stay longer, and Kunhang and Dejun immediately accept. 

 

Yangyang is surely a very charming boy, a very bright individual and, above all, a very nice friend, and Kunhang is sure he’ll be a great king when the time comes. They say goodbye to him with tight hugs and a “see you soon”, waving from the van window until his figure vanishes from the scenery.

 

“You know, prince Kunhang, I really thought this time would be it.” Dejun comments, a few minutes after they leave the Liu’s palace.

 

“What, the courting?” Kunhang asks. “Nah. Yang was too much of a friend for that.” he chuckles, and then adds. “Besides, he was already kind of interested in someone else. So. Nah.”

 

“Oh, I see. Well, that’s a shame, you two had really good chemistry.” the musician says, sincerely. He doesn’t show any signs of having noticed Yangyang’s lovestruck stares in his directions, so Kunhang doesn’t mention them. Knowing Dejun, this piece of knowledge would probably make him feel bad. 

 

“We did, right? It just wasn’t the romantic one.”

 

Dejun’s hand absentmindedly comes to rest on the prince’s knee, patting it two times reassuringly. “We will find the right person, don’t worry.”

 

Now, to say Kunhang was embarrassed at that gesture would be quite the understatement. It wasn’t even intimate — it was just a pat on the knee, common between friends, but the prince’s face is most definitely burning. It was a bold act for Dejun, too, because he never initiated skinship with Kunhang without a) hesitating or b) asking. The musician, however, seems to be rethinking his actions, sneaking quick glances at his companion, trying to gauge his reactions, and biting his lip nervously.

 

“Hey.” Kunhang calls him. “Don’t fret. That was okay.”

 

“You didn’t seem okay.” Dejun protests. “You were… Silent.”

 

“It was unexpected, I’ll give you that. But not bad. I told you, we’re friends, you don’t need to be so wary of touching me. I really don’t mind a pat on the knee, a ruffle of my hair, stuff like that. You have my full permission.”

 

The musician hesitates before giving in, nodding. “If you say so, okay. I’ll… Keep that in mind.”

 

“Awesome.” suddenly, a yawn comes out of Kunhang’s mouth, taking him by surprise. “Oh, damn. Didn’t know I was that tired.”

 

“Take a nap, prince Kunhang. There’s still a long while before we get to our next destination.”

 

“How do you not get tired? You’ve been driving nonstop.”

 

“I do get tired, but it’s okay. I always make sure to rest when we arrive at your suitors’ houses, so I don’t get exhausted when the time to drive comes.” Dejun smiles. “No need to worry about me, my prince. I’m fine.”

 

“I really want to argue with you about that, but I think I want to nap more.” Kunhang drawls out, earning a chuckle from his friend. “Maybe we can stop somewhere so you can take a nap too.”

 

“Maybe, if we get to the city fast, but right now we’re in the middle of the road.”

 

The prince yawns again. “I know, I know. Wake me up if you need anything, okay?”

 

“Okay. Sleep well, prince Kunhang.”

 

“I will. Mhmm, good night.”

 

It’s not night yet, but Kunhang drifts off like it is.




A light, barely-there hand shaking his shoulder wakes him up.

 

“Prince Kunhang. Prince Kunhang, wake up. Prince.”

 

He blinks the sleep out of his eyes, the soothing voice that calls him doing a very poor job at shaking him awake. “Hm?”

 

“Hey. Sorry to wake you up.” Dejun’s face is what greets Kunhang when he properly opens his eyes, a slightly worried expression painting his delicate features.

 

“What happened?”

 

“So, I think I miscalculated the time it would take for us to get to the next suitor.” he gnaws on his bottom lip. “It’s already nighttime, and we have a couple of hours ahead of us, and we’re running low on gas. I saw an outdoor announcing an inn nearby, so I thought we should spend the night there, and, well, here we are. It seems very homely and comfortable and trustworthy. Doesn’t look shady or anything.”

 

“Oh.” the prince says, his brain still functioning at half capacity. “Nice.”

 

Dejun laughs at his response. “Shall we? We need to check in, and then you can go back to sleep.”



The person behind the front desk is a kind-looking old lady, and they have no trouble with the check in, promptly being handed the keys to the room they'll stay for the night. The old lady also tells them the breakfast is included in the room price, and it starts being served at 8am. The boys nod and thank her, wishing her a good night, and follow the instructions to get to their room.

 

Room 9 is at the end of the first corridor to the right. It's a medium-sized room with a bed, two bedside tables, a wooden rack to hang clothes, a desk and a low cupboard, probably for travel bags, suitcases and such. Overall, it feels cozy enough for a night in.

 

Wait.

 

"There's only one bed." Dejun points out, eyes wide with surprise.

 

Indeed, there's only one bed — big enough to fit the two boys comfortably, but still one bed. Honestly, Kunhang just wants to sleep, not really willing to go back to the front desk and ask for a rearrangement, so he ignores Dejun's exasperated "no!" and plops down face first on the bed.

 

"Prince Kunhang, we can't-"

 

"Jun, I'm tired. You probably are, too." the prince slurs, nickname slipping past his lips without him noticing. "Let's just sleep. You stay in one half of the bed, I take the other."

 

"But it would be inappropriate and-"

 

"We've been on the road together for weeks now, I think we're close enough to share a bed." Kunhang mumbles. "There are no rules that forbid this. We're just sleeping. Unless you, yourself , are uncomfortable with it…" he trails off.

 

Dejun stays silent for a while before sighing, defeated. "Alright, let's just share. But change out of those jeans and brush your teeth first."

 

The prince chuckles, slowly getting up from the bed. "Alright, mom."

 

He hip-checks a blushing Dejun on his way to the small bathroom adjacent to the room. When he comes back, clothes changed and teeth brushed, the bed is already set, and the musician is putting a rolled up blanket between the two pillows, dividing the bed into two separate spaces.

 

"You really took it seriously when I said that about separate halves of the bed." Kunhang snorts.

 

"It'll make this less awkward." Dejun says.

 

"There's nothing awkward about this. Friends share beds, it's normal. But if it makes you less antsy, it's fine by me." the prince plops down on his designated half of the bed, not before picking one of the comforters Dejun had placed on top of the desk.

 

He snuggles into the bed, back facing the other side. A few minutes later, there's a dip in the mattress, meaning Dejun has now climbed into it as well. Kunhang feels the bed rustle a few times before the older boy's voice speaks up.

 

"Are you comfortable, prince Kunhang?"

 

"I'm good." he answers. "You?"

 

"Me too." Dejun's voice sounds tired, and Kunhang figures it's understandable with how much he's been driving. Even then, he adds. "Wake me up if something happens, alright?"

 

"Mhmm, alright." the prince mumbles. "Goodnight, Dejun."

 

"Goodnight, my prince."




When Kunhang wakes up, he's warm. Initially, he figures it's because he's bundled inside a comforter cocoon, but then he feels something delicate slide up his arm and rest on his shoulder, and, wait a minute, comforters don't have hands.

 

That can only mean one thing.

 

Oh no.

 

The prince opens his eyes properly to confirm that yes, he's currently tucked in between Dejun's arms, and they're — unconsciously — cuddling. He must've moved around while he slept, the bed divisor doing nothing to stop his clingy ass. Their legs are tangledd and Kunhang’s head is nestled in Dejun’s chest, arms around his waist.

 

The weirdest part is that he doesn’t particularly want to move at all. Dejun is comfortable and cuddling him feels incredibly nice, probably nicer than it should have. The prince looks up at the boy’s peaceful sleeping face, beautiful as always, but more serene than when he’s awake. Kunhang has never noticed it before, but the musician has very long, dark lashes that rest prettily against the soft skin of his face. His lips are slightly parted, pink and plush, letting out quiet snores that sound like a kitten’s purring.

 

With shy rays of sunlight beginning to hit his face, Dejun looks like a work of art. The mix between dark and light colors reminds Kunhang of the Baroque paintings he often sees on books about Art History. 

 

Figuring it’s a little creepy to stare at someone’s face while they sleep, the prince considers going back to sleep or getting up from Dejun’s embrace — which he doesn’t really want to do. With only one option left, Kunhang snuggles back into the other’s chest and lets sleep take over him again.



This time, sleep doesn’t last long. After what feels like minutes, the prince wakes up missing the warmth that once surrounded him. Blinking repeatedly to chase the drowsiness out of his eyes, he registers the sound of running water, and concludes Dejun is probably taking a shower. He picks up his phone from the bedside table and looks at the time — it’s not even 10 yet. Yawning, he sits up on the bed slowly, tapping on his phone while waiting for the other boy to come back.

 

Eventually, the water sounds stop and Dejun walks out of the bathroom, already dressed up for the day. He sees Kunhang on the bed and bows his head.

 

“Good morning, Your Highness.”

 

The prince frowns. “What’s with the formality?”

 

“I made a terrible mistake this morning, my prince. I severely overstepped. So I’m making up for it.”

 

“That’s probably the silliest thing you’ve ever said.” Kunhang deadpans. “And you can be quite the dork sometimes. Is this about the cuddling?”

 

Dejun blushes furiously at his words. “I- Hm- Yes. It… It is.”

 

“You didn’t overstep. I assured you I wouldn’t mind, and I really didn’t. I thought we had settled this.”

 

“That was about sharing a bed. Thing, uh, escalated after we fell asleep.”

 

“Your choice of words makes things seem way worse than they are.” Kunhang smiles up at him. “I promise, you didn’t make me uncomfortable. It was probably me cuddling up to you in my sleep, anyway.”

 

“Are you sure, prince Kunhang? I need you to tell me if I crossed any lines.” the older boy’s gaze is still uncertain.

 

“I’m sure. You’re okay, Jun, don’t worry.”

 

The smile Kunhang gets in response is still shy and close-lipped, but he’ll take it.

 

“So.” the prince starts, changing the subject. “Breakfast?”

 

Dejun snickers at his pajama pants. “Change first, then we’ll see.”





After a delicious breakfast that tasted a lot like home cooked food (“it technically is home cooked, prince Kunhang”), they check out of the inn and go back to the road. Dejun had asked the old lady behind the desk if there was a gas station nearby, and she said yes, only a kilometer or so away. They had enough fuel for that distance, thankfully, so they just drove until they got there.

 

With the van properly taken care of, the boys head to their next destination: the house of a young duke with seemingly no direct relatives. The man, commonly known as Ten, is rumored to be a big fan of dancing, music, fine arts in general, fashion and parties. He's also rumored to be a little bonkers, and allergic to romantic commitment, which is valid, but nonsensical if you considered he was on the list of possible suitors for Kunhang.

 

Unlike the other noble people they visited, who lived either in houses or villas, Ten lives in the fancy penthouse of a 25-story apartment building. Dejun and Kunhang can’t help but let out some “wow”s when they enter the elevator and press the button to get to the duke’s house.

 

The elevator leaves them in a small hall, the door to Ten’s apartment a few steps ahead. They ring the doorbell and are immediately greeted by beautiful features and a bright smile.

 

“Hello! I was expecting you two. Come in, come in.” Ten ushers them inside, revealing a very expensive-looking apartment. He then turns to his guests and raises an eyebrow. “Wait, which one of you is the prince?”

 

Kunhang raises his hand slowly.

 

“Nice. So you’re Kunhang.” Ten smiles and turns to Dejun. “And you?”

 

“Xiao Dejun, Your Grace.” the musician bows. “The court’s musician. I’m accompanying prince Kunhang on his journey looking for suitors.”

 

“Oh, that’s cool. And there’s no need for all this formality, darling, we’re all friends here.” the duke assures.

 

“It’s useless.” Kunhang says. “He never stops with the honorifics. We’ve been friends for a whole month now and he still calls me ‘prince Kunhang’.”

 

“It’s called being dutifully respectful, my prince, you should try it sometime.” Dejun quips under his breath.

 

Ten snorts at their exchange. “Are you two always like that?”

 

“No, he usually behaves.” the musician deadpans. 

 

“What do you mean by ‘usually’? I always behave.”

 

“That time at the Huangs, for example, you didn’t-”

 

That was an accident.”

 

“Uh huh. Totally.”

 

“So the answer to my question is ‘yes’.” Ten interrupts their banter. “You two are always like that.”

 

“I swear it’s not always like that.” Kunhang rubs the back of his neck awkwardly. “We’re not this annoying on a regular basis.”

 

“We’re mostly peaceful.” Dejun adds.

 

Ten smiles. “I have this feeling we’re going to be really good friends.”




The rumors about Ten are, mostly, true. He is indeed a little bonkers, but he’s also incredibly fun, kind, creative, talented, and good at giving advice. During their stay, he entertains the boys with the many stories about situations he encountered in life, like the cat lady that was secretly a gang leader, and the pool boy he had a fling with during his vacation trip to Russia. Kunhang doesn’t know how many of the stories are true, but they’re good to hear regardless.

 

On their third day at Ten’s house, the three are sitting in the living room watching a movie and eating fried chicken. Kunhang is sprawled on the floor, Ten is lying down on the couch and Dejun sits in the vintage reclinable armchair, legs crossed like a pretzel and paying attention to what’s playing on the giant LED screen.

 

Kunhang has a chicken leg stuffed into his mouth when Ten nudges him with a socked foot. “Hey.” he whispers.

 

“What?”

 

“I need to talk to you about something.”

 

“Right now?” the prince points to the TV, trying to argue that this is not a nice time to have a conversation.

 

“Yes, right now, don’t argue with me.” the duke gets up and Kunhang, knowing it’s pointless to fight, follows suit. With a slightly raised voice, Ten speaks to Dejun. “Darling, Kunhang and I are going to have a quick chat on the balcony, alright? You can keep watching the movie, don’t pause it just because of us.”

 

Dejun blinks, tearing his eyes from the movie for a second. He eyes Kunhang suspiciously, to which the prince just shrugs helplessly. “Okay then, Your Grace.”

 

“Nice. We’ll be right back.”

 

Ten leads Kunhang to the balcony and promptly closes the glass door that separates it from the living room.

 

“You’re scaring me.” the prince says. “Like, for real. Scaring me.”

 

“What, do you think I’m gonna throw you off my balcony? Nah, I really just want to talk. But Dejun looked so engrossed in the movie, I didn’t want to disturb the poor boy.”

 

Well, Dejun did seem very interested in the story, Kunhang supposes. It makes sense.

 

“What do you want to talk about?”

 

“For starters,” Ten leans against the balcony railing. “I just need to put it out there that this courting thing… Not gonna happen.”

 

“Oh, definitely not.” the prince shakes his head, chuckling. “I’m glad we’re on the same page about that.”

 

“Yeah, me too. If you wanna invite me to be your advisor in the future, though, please do. I have this feeling you’d be a really clueless king without my guidance.”

 

“I’ve survived until now.” Kunhang teases.

 

“Yes, it’s unbelievable. I would thank Lady Luck everyday if I was you.” the older bites back. “But what I wanted to talk about is actually something I’ve been noticing since you two arrived. Tell me, Heng, did you even actually try to engage in a courtship process with any of those people you’ve visited?”

 

“Not really, no.” the prince shakes his head. “I think this whole ordeal is kind of ridiculous. You know, roam the country in search of someone I might like so we might start something that will probably go wrong because I don’t actually like them? It seems pointless to me. I’m not one for convenience marriages, so that was out of the question. And, after all, the heart wants what it wants, right?”

 

“That’s what Selena Gomez said.”

 

“What’s the point of searching for someone to court just for the sake of it? If none of them are the right person, it’s never gonna happen.”

 

“Wise words, darling.” Ten pats his hand lightly. “Now, another question.”

 

“Shoot.”

 

“Have you ever stopped to think that maybe, just maybe, another reason for your lack of interest in courting other people is because your heart might already be taken?”

 

Uh… What?

 

Kunhang furrows his brows. His heart? Taken?

 

“You’re thinking very loudly. I can hear the gears in your brain working.” Ten chuckles.

 

“It’s because it doesn’t make sense. Why would my heart be taken? And by who?”

 

The duke doesn’t say anything. He just smiles knowingly and points to the living room, where Dejun remains sat in the vintage armchair, this time laughing over whatever was happening in the movie.

 

There’s something very precious about Dejun in general, but there’s something even more precious about him when he laughs. His eyes squeeze shut, his teeth are on full display and his nose bridge scrunches a little, making the sight even more endearing. Kunhang feels that tug on his heartstrings again, and he still doesn’t know why Ten pointed at the musician when he asked about-

 

Oh.

 

OH .

 

Kunhang’s eyes go wide, and he brings a hand to cover his mouth. “Sweet baby Jesus on a bicycle. I’m in love with Dejun.”

 

Ten bursts out laughing after that, which only aggravates the prince’s crisis. 

 

“Don’t laugh at me! This is serious!”

 

“I’m sorry, Heng but- The way you said it-” the older wipes out a laughter-induced tear. “I’m sorry, darling. I’m glad you figured it out.”

 

“How did you know that I like him but I didn’t?” Kunhang asks, his face morphing back into a panicked one. “Oh my, do you think he knows?”

 

“Nah, I think he’s just as clueless as you.”

 

The prince sinks down to the floor. “And what now? What do I do?”

 

“You could confess.” Ten shrugs.

 

Kunhang almost screeches like a banshee. “ NO !! He’ll reject me, and it’ll be super awkward because I’ve tried so hard to be his friend, like, for real, I love his friendship so much, I don’t want to throw that down the drain because I’m a lovesick idiot -”

 

“Kunhang.” the older interrupts. “Breathe. Confessing won’t ruin your friendship. In fact, there’s a great possibility that he likes you back.”

 

“Yeah, right.”

 

“I’m serious. He looks at you too tenderly. There has to be something there.”

 

The prince frowns. “Don’t get my hopes up.”

 

“I’m just saying.” Ten ruffles his hair. “Look, think about it, okay? With a clearer mind. If you decide to confess, that’s great, but if you don’t, that’s good too, because you have your reasons. Just… Follow your heart.”

 

“Really? That’s your advice, Mr.-Future-Advisor?” Kunhang arches an eyebrow with a sarcastic smile.

 

“Heng, I’m brilliant, but I’m not psychic.” the duke says. “There’s no way I can tell you exactly what’s best for a situation so personal. But I do trust your heart to make the right decision.”

 

“You shouldn’t. I’m a dumbass and so is my heart. Probably.”

 

Ten chuckles. “Give it a little credit. Heart and brains are different entities. Maybe the braincells you lack went to your heart, who knows.”

 

Kunhang kicks the older’s shin at that. “I hate you.” he grumbles, with no real bite to it. “Stop roasting me.”

 

“I will, only because you’re in a delicate situation.” Ten extends a hand to help the prince get up. “C’mon, let’s go back. Dejun is probably thinking I actually threw you off from the balcony with all the time we’re taking.”

 

They walk back inside, and Dejun whips his head at their direction when he notices their return. He gives them a smile and a tiny wave before focusing back on the movie.

 

This time, Kunhang plops down on the couch beside Ten instead of lounging on the floor. Until the movie ends, he loses count of how many times he stole glances at Dejun’s direction, and how long he spent analyzing the musician’s face and the little details about him.

 

Yangyang had been right the whole time — the truth was always there but, for some reason, he never acknowledge it.

 

Honestly, why did it take him so long to realize the way he feels?





A couple of days later, they leave Ten’s penthouse, with his number saved on their phones and two — expensive — souvenir gifts each. Kunhang is still overwhelmed by his own feelings, but he manages to hide it pretty well, because Dejun doesn’t seem to notice anything weird. They just carry on with their roadtrip like they always do, and the prince almosts believes everything can go back to normal even after his realization.

 

But things, obviously, are very different now.

 

It happens when they stop at a considerably big town to have lunch. Their first mistake is picking one of the busiest districts to find a place to eat — but, once they’re there, they decide to stay anyway. That’s their second mistake.

 

The third mistake is totally Kunhang’s fault, he admits it. He gets distracted with a display window and separates himself from Dejun, getting lost in the crowd in the process. Not realizing that, he keeps walking and, when he notices there’s no one walking by his side anymore, it’s too late — he doesn’t recognize where he’s going, and his companion is probably way behind him.

 

He’s lost.

 

Lost, alone, in a crowded place in an unknown town.

 

Is this the time you ask for a deus ex-machina to save you?

 

Kunhang actually waits for a miracle to happen and some mysterious entity to teleport Dejun back to him, but, of course, nothing changes. He sighs, and starts to walk back from where he came — or, at least, where he thought he came.

 

He walks, and walks, and it’s fruitless. He can’t seem to find Dejun or the street he was at, the town seeming more and more chaotic by the second. The prince is about to give up, or cry, or both, when a voice brings him out of his thoughts, like a body breaking the water surface for air.

 

“Kunhang!”

 

It’s all he hears before a smaller body crashes into his back. He turns to see Dejun hugging his waist tightly, as if he was scared to let go. Then, the older boy smacks his shoulder and frowns.

 

“Don’t ever do that again!”

 

“Ouch!” the prince protests. “I’m sorry, I got distracted-”

 

Another hug cuts him off. Dejun rests his head on Kunhang’s shoulder, which is new for him — if it weren’t for the circumstances, the musician would probably hesitate to do it, mumbling something about being against some rule. Well, Kunhang is glad to have this moment untarnished by ridiculous prohibitions.

 

“I’m serious, Kunhang. Don’t do that again.” Dejun’s voice resonates softly right beside his ear. “I really thought I lost you for a moment.”

 

The prince retributes the hug, holding the older closer to his frame. “I won’t do it again. I promise, I’m not going anywhere.”

 

Then, he realizes something.

 

“Wait.” He breaks the hug, holding Dejun by the shoulders with surprise painted all over his face. “You called me Kunhang.”

 

Pink tints the musician’s cheeks as he smiles sheepishly. “I did, didn’t I?”

 

“W-What does that mean?”

 

“It means… It means that I was so scared to lose you I threw all formalities out of the window.” Dejun takes the prince’s hands in his. “Like I’m doing now. Again.”

 

“I don’t mind.” Kunhang blurts out. “I never did.”

 

“Well, I did.”

 

“And… Do you still… Do you still mind?” he asks, tentatively, voice quiet.

 

Dejun eyes their joined hands. “I’m… Still not sure, honestly.”

 

Silence washes over them. It’s now that they remember they’re standing on a busy street, people walking in every direction and almost slamming into them. Kunhang pulls his friend to a more secluded corner, sure his palms are disgustingly sweaty. He looks at the musician, trying to convey his feelings through his eyes the best he can.

 

“Dejun.” he starts. “I think I’m going to do something dumb.”

 

“Okay...?”

 

“And I want you to stop me if you think I’m being too much.”

 

Dejun quirks up an eyebrow. “You’re scaring me, what is it?”

 

Now or never. Make it or break it.

 

Kunhang presses their lips together.

 

He’s suddenly 100% sure heaven has a shape, a feel and a taste, because it’s Dejun’s lips. The kiss is brief, but sweet, and the prince declares to himself then and there he never wants to kiss anyone else. If Dejun doesn’t reciprocate his feelings, he’ll willingly suffer from chapped lips and a life of no kisses.

 

Delicate fingers press against his chest, breaking the kiss.

 

“We can’t.” Dejun breathes out.

 

“We can.”

 

“No, we can’t”

 

“Says who?”

 

A sigh. “First of all, says your father. Second of all, says the rules-”

 

“Jun, no one cares about those rules.” Kunhang protests. “They’re bullshit.”

 

“They’re still vigent. We can’t disrespect-”

 

“Well, speak for yourself.” the prince interrupts, crossing his arms. “Because, news flash, Xiao Dejun, I’m in love with your stupid self, and I’d break a thousand rules for you.”

 

Now, Kunhang was prepared for a lot of things. A slap to the face, sobbing, complete silence… He was expecting all of it.

 

He was definitely not expecting Dejun’s lips to come crashing against his for a second time, only more desperate, trying to express something. Kunhang lets him, holding his waist and kissing back with the same feeling. They’re a little breathless when they part, but it’s worth it.

 

“I’m in love with you, too.” Dejun croaks out.

 

He kisses Kunhang again after thar, for good measure.

 

“So… Is that a yes?” the prince asks.

 

“How can I say yes if you didn't ask me any questions?” the musician chuckles, teasingly.

 

“I thought it was, you know, implicit. In the context.”

 

“It wasn’t. Ask what you’re trying to ask, and I’ll give you a proper answer.”

 

“You’re a little shit.” Kunhang grumbles.

 

“I know.” 

 

Oh, that mischievous smile. It’s one of his favorites.

 

“So.” he starts, uncertain. “Would you, like, maybe, want to… You know. The dating thing.”

 

“Are you really flustered?” the musician asks, chuckling. “That’s adorable. You’re so cute.”

 

“Shut up, Jun, I’m trying.”

 

Dejun pecks his lips quickly. “I love it when you call me Jun. And yes, Kunhang, I want to try the ‘dating thing’ with you.”

 

Kunhang beams, but the older lifts his pointer finger to signal he still has points to address. 

 

“But we need to do it properly. And that includes telling your father about it.”

 

“He’ll never approve-”

 

“Then we need to convince him. Because the only way I’ll ever kiss you with my mind at ease is when I know there’s nothing forbidding us to do it.” Dejun sighs. “I spent so much time learning our worlds were too different to merge, so you can probably imagine what’s going on inside my head right now.”

 

Kunhang kisses his cheek. “I understand. Don’t worry, we’ll convince my dad. Until then, though, can you hug me again? You’re comfy.”

 

Rolling his eyes fondly, Dejun complies, sneaking a kiss to the prince’s cheek in the middle of the hug. “I guess your journey to find a suitor is over, huh.”

 

“Thank God. I was starting to go insane.” Kunhang brings a hand to pet the musician’s hair. “Forgive me for the cheesiness, but I have to say it: and to think you were right by my side the whole time.”

 

A faint bite to his shoulder. “Never say such a corny line again. I’ll break up with you.”

 

The prince just laughs, relishing in Dejun’s warmth.

 

Good things are coming. He knows it.



(During lunch, Dejun plays mindlessly with a straw when he asks “I guess now would be a nice time to tell you I’ve actually been in love with you for two years or so, right? Give or take.”

 

Kunhang chokes on his milkshake.)





Going back to their kingdom is easy.

 

(Dejun slaps Kunhang’s hand away every time the prince tries to hold his thigh while he drives. He appreciates the touch, but it’s distracting, so no.)

 

Talking to the King goes way, way better than they expected.

 

(The King is initially mad at the trip’s lack of results, and he’s about to start a lecture when he is interrupted.

 

“Father, this trip was pointless to me because I’m actually in love with Dejun and there’s no one else I’d be willing to court. There, I said it. I don’t care that he’s not a noble, and I’m willing to bend any rules that may be against our-maybe-relationship.” Kunhang blurts out in one go.

 

“Son, I don’t think you have the power to bend any rules.” the King turns to Dejun. “Do you also have feeling for my son?”

 

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

 

He looks at Kunhang again. “Does Dejun truly make you happy?”

 

“Yes, father. Very.”

 

The King, then, sighs. “Then you have my blessing.”

 

Both boys have their jaw on the floor. 

 

“Don’t look so surprised, son. Your mother taught me many things, but one of them was to never stand in the way of genuine feelings. So yes, you have my blessing.”

 

There’s a string of grateful statements from Kunhang and Dejun, and the King waves them off. “It’s alright, it’s alright. Take care of him.”

 

The boys look at him, confused. “Uh, father. Which one of us are you talking to?”

 

The kind glint on the King’s eyes is something that Kunhang hasn’t seen in a long, long time. And it’s very welcome. “Both of you.”)

 

Yukhei makes a fuss, almost crying as he hugs the boys close.

 

(I’m so proud of you, my baby cousin. I knew you’d find the right person. Of course your stupid ass had to travel miles and miles and miles to realize you were in love with the guy who was accompanying you. Of fucking course .”

 

Kunhang kicks him in retaliation for the insult.)

 

The prince invites all the friends he made during the trip to a big celebratory dinner, and they have lots of fun.

 

Things are, like he expected, good.



Kunhang and Dejun are cuddling on the prince’s bed, right after watching a movie. 

 

“You know, that time when we woke up cuddling at the inn.” the prince starts. “I actually woke up before you, but I stayed in bed and went back to sleep because you holding me felt nice.”

 

“You’re unbelievable.” Dejun flicks his ear. “So I freaked out for nothing.”

 

“You freaked out for nothing a lot of times.”

 

“I was panicking the whole time. I was in love with you, but you were my prince, so imagine how that felt.” the older boy boops the prince’s nose. “Don’t judge me.”

 

“Oh, and that time when you played guitar at that fair in Yangyang’s kingdom. I was so moonstruck over you singing and doing all that I had an inner monologue going on.”

 

“So that’s why you said it was different from me performing at the palace. I knew something was up with that whole bullshit about mt aura.”

 

“Stop being mean, I didn’t know at the time.” Kunhang slaps his shoulder playfully. “I thought it was just friendly admiration on my part.”

 

“You really were clueless, huh.”

 

“You weren’t any better! I was practically swooning over your every move and shooting hearts out of my eyes and you only noticed it when I kissed you.”

 

Dejun nods, defeated, and chuckles. “You’re right. And, for that, I’m glad you kissed me.”

 

“I am too.” the prince looks up at him with an exaggerated innocent smile. “Can I kiss you again, then?”

 

“We’ve ‘kissed again’ plenty of times already.” the musician rolls his eyes fondly. “Yes, you absolute dork whom I happen to love very much, you can kiss me again.”

 

Kunhang laughs, and then kisses him sweetly.

 

They stay silent for a few moments before Dejun speaks up again, one hand crawling up the prince’s arm to rest on his head, petting his hair.

 

“You know, I think I should say it back.”

 

Kunhang looks puzzled. “Say what back?”

 

“That I’d break a thousand rules for you too.”




(Right then and there, Kunhang knows it.

 

Sweet, model-citizen, soft-spoken Dejun considering breaking rules because of him ?

 

That’s the man of his life .)